Wolfram at the Door

Stephen Wolfram is trying to turn Google on it’s ear. He had the audacity to notice that when people search the web, they aren’t looking for websites so often as they are looking for answers. So being a guy who earned a PhD in theoretical physics at 20, and developed groundbreaking advances in complexity theory and computational modeling, and owning his own research laboratory, he did what any of us who were that smart and that well financed would do. He developed his own computational knowledge engine.

Relax, it’s simpler than it sounds, at least on the outside. Just go here and type in a question. It’s best with things that have specific answers. Ask it, “How far is it from Rochester to Buffalo?” Or, “How big is the sun?” It also handles a few gems like, “How many roads must a man walk down?” Or, “What is the meaning of life?”

It’s still a work in progress so there are a lot of questions it just can’t handle. But the cool thing is that it isn’t just a list of canned questions and answers. It actually spiders the web like other search engines, but it tries to understand what it finds. It also tries to understand your question. then it computes the most likely answers to those questions, rather than just returning site links and abstracts. It’s learning. It just hasn’t been in school too long yet.

Once Wolfram Alpha gets its learnin’ all done. Then it can start ushering in the machine led apocalypse. I think Skynet started this way.

Craftsman Surgical Supply

A 12-year old boy who wasn’t wearing his bicycle helmet wiped out on the pavement near his rural Australian home. He whacked his head and seemed okay at first, but then developed symptoms that told his mother (a trained nurse) that something larger was wrong. She took the boy to the local hospital, which sounds like little more than a high-end clinic. The doctor realized that the boy was bleeding into his brain and would be dead within minutes if he didn’t relieve the pressure. Unfortunately, the hospital wasn’t equipped to perform neurosurgery, nor was the doctor a surgeon. Thinking quickly, he called to hospital maintenance to bring him a cordless drill and phoned a neurosurgeon to walk him through the procedure. The boy is doing fine now.

I love stories like this because they involve somebody thinking outside the manual and MacGyvering up a solution with whatever’s on hand to do something extraordinary. Although intuitively it seems that the drill a neurosurgeon would use and the household equivalent should be worlds apart, they are eerily similar. In fact many surgical tools would look very familiar to any household handyman.

I still recall 20 years back when I was having the hardware removed from my knee after the fracture had healed. It was done as an outpatient procedure, and I remember the shock when the doctor removed from sterile packaging a Torx driver which I could have brought from my own toolbox. (However, mine wasn’t sterile and probably cost $400 less than his.) My initial reaction was shock that there wasn’t some specialized high-tech gleaming tool for the job. But on reflection, he was removing a screw, so a screwdriver was a pretty reasonable choice.

It kind of brings home the point that people are just squishy machines, and the tools to work on machines are somewhat universal. I suppose it also makes sense that a doctor would have the calm detachment opening up a person that I might have opening a computer or an engine. In fact, I expect they’d have to, or they never would. Unfortunately, they can’t do a full system back-up before they start, so they don’t get quite so many do-overs.

Nerd Contagion

Wil Wheaton wrote an amusing piece about how his non-nerd wife had apparently been infected through “nerd-adjacency” over the last 13 years. This came about because she made a Star Trek red shirt joke. It got me to wondering if poor Kim was destined for a similar fate. I can’t quite imagine her making contextual Sci-Fi jokes, but then she’s still short of the decade plus exposure that Wil’s wife has endured.

However, the larger message in Wheaton’s piece was simply that his wife “gets him,” and he values that. I grok it. And I’m also encouraged that apparently the geeky and non-geeky can have a lasting healthy relationship.

I don’t think Kim can really relate to my geeky side, but she does seem to understand it. She’s happy to catch up on her sleep while I watch television. She even took me to see the new Star Trek movie and listened politely to my post-game analysis. She’s eye-rollingly amused by stories of my dinnertime conversations with my kids, which the other night involved artificial gravity waves and whether or not the geometric foci of elliptical gravitational orbits needed to be be physical objects. (Tyler started it!) And she even finds me handy when her computer isn’t working.

While I certainly value her giving me space to be me, I also value that she makes me more than that. She anchors me to the real world and socializes me in ways that I know I wouldn’t or couldn’t on my own. I’m honestly grateful for that, even though sometimes I’m sure I appear resistant. Finding someone who can cause you to be better without demanding that you change is kind of the holy grail of relationships. And I do recognize that I’m a lucky man.

I suppose maybe this is one of those cases where opposites attract—and in situations where each is able to appreciate the value of the other, it seems that works. She makes me human, and I keep all her gadgets running. What I don’t get is that she could just buy tech support. But maybe I should shut-up while I’m ahead and hope she doesn’t figure that out… at least before she’s assimilated into the geek collective. Sorry Love, apparently resistance is futile.

Pretty in Pink

Zachary Boyd was never a Boy Scout. Otherwise he would have known to “always be prepared.” The good news is that he wasn’t caught with his shorts down when the Taliban attacked his base in Kunar provice. The bad news is that he had them on, and they were pink.

Thank goodness the AP photographer was there to show Boyd in his colorful undies and flack jacket holding off the enemy fighters. On the other hand, had the bunker been overrun, I can’t help but suspect that causing the guy with the AK-47 to guffaw uncontrollably might have given the soldiers one last shot at turning the tables.

Boyd’s mother was quoted as saying, “It was typical. He has always been an interesting little character.” You can almost hear the pride in her voice, no?

Depart, I say; and let us have done with you

Yesterday, former Vice President and recovering recluse Dick Cheney gave a speech outlining his twisted and inaccurate view of the world. He yet again asserted the Iraq/Al-Qaeda link which has been repeatedly debunked and even dismissed by Cheney’s former alleged boss G.W. Bush. He again asserted the false claim that torture is a valuable interrogation tool. And he again asserted that the horrific events of 9/11 continue to be unapologetic rationale for any action we have taken or might take in the future. Ironically he also lamented how public dissent over government strategy and tactics was enabling the terrorists, apparently failing to recognize that this was the very same pot he was standing over and stirring with vigor.

MS-NBC’s Keith Olberman did an outstanding job of dressing down the Dark Lord last night:

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I would hope that someone, anyone, would notify Mr. Cheney that he really needs to be quiet. That he’s doing far more harm than good; harm to his country; harm to his party; harm to his administration’s legacy; and harm to himself. But no one, including Bush, holds sway over this loose canon. In that respect, nothing has changed since he was in office. Perhaps the strategy should be that Obama could quietly notify Cheney that either he can go silently into retirement or Obama will appoint a special investigator to prosecute Cheney for war crimes. But I expect even then, Cheney would just publicize this as a left-wing conspiracy to cover up the tortured view of the world that passes for reality in his perverted psyche.

As Olberman says at the end of his tongue lashing, “Let me again quote Oliver Cromwell to you, Mr. Cheney: You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”