Which Washington?

February 22, 2010
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C. Alan Joyce
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Happy birthday, George Washington! In case you’d forgotten, President’s Day in the United States isn’t actually celebrated on George Washington’s birthday: since 1971, it has fallen on the 3rd Monday in February, which means it’s always at least one day short of the first president’s actual birthday, February 22.

As you might imagine for a man referred to as “the father of the country,” the name “Washington” has taken on a life of its own—and as such, it provides a good opportunity to see how Wolfram|Alpha deals with cases where a single word can be interpreted in many different ways.

Type “Washington” on its own, and you’ll learn that the word could refer to a city, a U.S. state, a surname, a specific person, or a given name. For users in the United States, Wolfram|Alpha will assume you’re talking about the nation’s capital, and then give a list of alternate cities ranked by a combination of population, distance from your current location, and general popularity. But if you’re in the United Kingdom, the default assumption will be a place closer to home:

Results for "Washington" in Wolfram|Alpha from the United Kingdom

When you ask more-specific questions about “Washington”, Wolfram|Alpha is usually able to make even-more-intelligent assumptions about which Washington you really want know about. Ask for “distance from seattle to washington” and you’ll get the great-circle distance between two cities. Try to “compare virginia and washington“, and you’ll get a stat-by-stat comparison of the two U.S. states. Ask Wolfram|Alpha “when was Washington born?” and the result is the first U.S. president’s birthday; try “washingtons in 1900” and you’ll discover that about 28 U.S. residents were given that first name that year, or ask about “washington as a last name” and Wolfram|Alpha will reveal that more than 160,000 people had that last name in the 2000 U.S. Census.

Returning sensible, accurate answers to short questions might seem like child’s play—but in fact, this aspect of Wolfram|Alpha is incredibly complex. When everything works perfectly, you shouldn’t even notice the alternate assumptions for a given question. But if you’re not getting exactly the answer you were looking for, take a second look at the assumptions Wolfram|Alpha made when it computed your answer—you may find the answer you’re looking for by selecting a different interpretation, or at least discover some surprising facts you never knew existed.

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2 Comments

When George Washington was born, the day wasn’t February 22, 1732.
The day was February 11, 1731.
Then the Gregorian Calendar was adopted in 1752, and the anniversary of his birth date was changed.

But you only have one birthday, and he was still born on February 11th, 1731.

Posted by John February 22, 2010 at 4:18 pm Reply

W|A is a bit slow on the use of ALL its algorithms to tackle any question. I suggest you introduce ‘Lateral Thinking’. One way is to make what you think of as suitable unanswered questions to the Volounteer Curators. If they come up with an answer you may be able to program it into W|A.
What started me on this was a question on the forum

http://community.wolframalpha.com/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=8341
andieje wanted a graph to use x as the horizontal axis. In some cases this could have been achieved by solving his equation for x instead of y. However when he did this for his question the answer was
‘plus or minus something and that could not be graphed.
After several false attempts I may have arrived at a solution by stepping outside Mathematics.
>Plot the graph using W|A with y as the horizontal axis
>Print the screen.
>Using MS Paint I ‘cut’ out the graph and paste that into a fresh invocation of MS Paint.
> Rotate the image 90 degrees clockwise
> Flip the image vertically.
The numbers are intelligible in reverse but no doubt W|A could put those right.
If I am right then W|A could probably do all this.
The trick would be to get W|A on the path of thinking laterally itself.

Posted by Brian Gilbert February 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm Reply
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