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ARCHIVE: May 2012
May 30, 2012– 2

I was a child of the late 70s and early 80s, so I was witness to the early evolution of home computers and the trends that came along with them. It’s amazing when you see the large-screen displays of today and compare them to the giant bulky monitors from those early days. It’s also amazing to see how the capabilities of these displays have improved with time, something we often take for granted. We are spoiled with giant widescreen monitors that sometimes exceed 2500x1400 pixels in size. I remember taking my first steps in computer science in school using graphics on an Apple IIe that supported 280x192 pixels! (We also walked to school uphill both ways in the snow with no shoes, because those were a luxury.) I’m sure there are those of you in the audience who remember even earlier days with even more primitive capabilities (TRS 80?).

Today there are a high number of devices that support all manner of display resolutions. Many applications that deal with graphics will often present you with dialog boxes when you save your images that give you things like a pixels per inch (PPI) setting as well as the memory used by the image. Often these little things are taken for granted, but they can be useful for planning how to use your results. Wolfram|Alpha has now added some extensions to its functionality that provide some basic tools to help in this area.

Let’s start simple. A fairly common display size (maybe on the low end by today’s standards) is 1024x768 pixels.
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May 24, 2012– Comments Off Comments Off

May 20–22 has held many major milestones in the history of aviation. Charles Lindbergh began the world’s first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean on May 20, 1927 (and completed it one day later). Just five years after that on May 21, 1932, Amelia Earhart began her one-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, those moments wouldn’t have been possible without the Wright Brothers patenting their airplane on May 22, 1906.

We’ve blogged in the past about the aviation functionality that Wolfram|Alpha knows. The query “flights overhead” is quite popular, but it only scratches the surface of what we can do.

While your friends or family are preparing to drive to the airport to pick you up, give them the name of your airline and flight number, and they can track exactly where you are in the air. Plus, they’ll see details on the scheduled departure and landing, actual departure and landing, air speed, altitude, and more.

American Airlines flight 431 departing on May 23, 2012 7:21 am
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May 16, 2012– 1

Solar eclipses have been recorded since ancient times, often misunderstood by early observers as a dragon eating the Sun or some omen of things to come. Although we have learned the true nature of eclipses in modern times, they never cease to amaze astronomers and the public alike. You can visualize solar and lunar eclipses using a Wolfram Demonstration.

Solar eclipses happen when the Moon moves between the Earth and the Sun. The Moon blocks the Sun’s light, which puts a kink into our daily expectations, making it get dark during the day. A fuzzy estimate puts the frequency of total solar eclipses at about one or two per year. This number can vary quite a bit. Often, these eclipses are only visible along narrow paths that are in out-of-the-way places that make it difficult for them to be observed (e.g. over the open ocean). Cruise ships are often booked for the sole purpose of chasing these solar eclipses for those people willing to set sail and pay the money to do so.

On May 20 of this year, people in the western United States and Pacific Ocean islands will be in a position to observe one of these solar eclipses without having to travel on the high seas.

solar eclipse May 2012
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The world of colors is a tremendously interesting and diverse area, and accordingly, queries on colors have been some of the most popular and recurring queries in Wolfram|Alpha since its launch. In accordance with the popularity of the domain, we have recently performed a major upgrade to the existing color functionality in Wolfram|Alpha.

Let’s start with something basic: green. In addition to the color’s alternative notations, Wolfram|Alpha provides the nearest representations in various color spaces, including HSV, HSL, HSI, XYZ, xyY, Lab, and Luv:

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May 9, 2012– 4

When Wolfram|Alpha launched three years ago, it did so with broad (but not very deep) socioeconomic data for most geographic places on Earth. Since then, each enhancement of this part of our knowledge base has tended to address just one type of place at a time. Sometimes we’ve added an entirely new category (like US congressional districts or school districts); other times, we’ve added a narrowly focused set of properties to an existing category (such as age pyramids for countries or home prices for US metro areas).

I’ve been proud of each of these individual features, but also frustrated by how hard it’s been to get detailed and directly comparable data for many different types of places at once—the kind of data, in other words, that Wolfram|Alpha is perfectly suited to work with.

But thanks to the outstanding work of our friends at the US Census Bureau, we’ve been able to take some big steps toward filling this “data gap.” The annual American Community Survey (ACS) is designed to replace the old long-form decennial census questionnaire, covering information about age, sex, race, ethnicity, education, income, and much more. In 2006, the Census Bureau released the first single-year ACS estimates, but only for areas with populations over 65,000; in 2008, three-year estimates came out for areas with populations of 20,000 or more; and in 2010, the first five-year estimates were released, covering every geographic area in the country.
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May 3, 2012– 4

Since its creation, Wolfram|Alpha has constantly grown to cover more and more topic areas. Now, it includes some functionality that may be useful for people interested in lumber. Most of us are used to going into a local home improvement store and seeing large collections of construction lumber, but before it gets into those stores, it has to be cut from logs. An important step in the process is determining how much lumber can be obtained from a log of a given size. There is no single method for estimating this, but there are a number of empirical formulas that are commonly used to estimate the volume of lumber that can be obtained from a log given its diameter and length. Typically, these estimates are rounded to the nearest 5 or 10 board feet. Three of the most common empirical rules are the Doyle Rule, the Scribner Rule, and the International 1/4-inch log rule. Different regions tend to use different rules, so it’s up to users to decide which one they want to use.

Doyle's log rule
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May 1, 2012– 4

In spring 2011, while adding the finishing touches to my PhD dissertation, I decided to enroll in the Wolfram Science Summer School (then called the NKS Summer School). I never suspected that my project at the Summer School would lead to a job and my involvement in one of the central features of Wolfram|Alpha Pro.

During my years as a graduate student I had the chance to live in three different countries and experience different working environments: other than my native Italy, I lived in Paris, where my PhD was based at ENS, and in Princeton, where I was lucky enough to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Study. However, at the end of my PhD, I felt that most of my interest in what I was doing was gone and that I needed to try something new.

Once at the Summer School, I had the chance to meet and chat with Stephen Wolfram as he helped me come up with a problem to work on. One of the first things I told him was that I was weary of open-ended academic kinds of problems and I was afraid no one was ever going to read my papers. I said that I wanted to deal with intellectual challenges, but I also wanted to tackle something that had a clear beginning and end. More »