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Richard Clark

Relating to Your Relatives with Wolfram|Alpha

December 18, 2012 —
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My family lives all over, with varying worldviews and equally varied career choices, from video game producers to truck drivers. So certainly reconnecting with family, both nuclear and extended, can be a daunting holiday experience. But don’t fret—Wolfram|Alpha is here to sort you out with the perfect ice breakers.

Suppose your brother is a truck driver who plans to move to Salt Lake City, Utah, from Raleigh, North Carolina, citing dissatisfaction with his wages and the cost of fuel, and how they juxtapose to the cost of living in Raleigh. You could first show how many truck drivers are in North Carolina and Utah, and from there ask the question “What is the average wage for truck drivers in North Carolina and Utah?

We can see that truck drivers do earn more money in Utah than in North Carolina, and the price of diesel is, at the time of this writing, pretty much the same—only a few cents difference. But moving to another part of the country is a huge decision, and even if one can earn a few thousand dollars more, is it worth it? We could compare the cost of utilities in Salt Lake City and Raleigh or, more generally, the cost of living in Salt Lake City and Raleigh.

What is the cost of living in Salt Lake City compared to Raleigh?

My cousin, who exists and is not merely hypothetical, has a propensity toward being far more artistic than I could ever hope to be. She is planning to go to university next year, with the long-term plan being to acquire several degrees in music and join some well-regarded orchestra. I know exceptionally little about most things, but I try to figure out what she means when she talks about the B major scale or something. She recently told me how hard it was to find a good repairer for her tuba, so I showed her how many musical instrument repairers and tuners are in Chicago versus her hometown of Los Angeles.

That information proved to be particularly good at showcasing what Wolfram|Alpha can do, but due to the spiteful pettiness that is my relationship with my cousin, she proceeded to send me link after link of frequencies and tones I found displeasing to my ear. You can do it too, you know.

play 440Hz tone + 444Hz tone

My sister is an amateur astronomer, and so an easy first question to ask her is “What’s your city’s star chart?” Following that, we’ll usually talk about her favorite stars and planetoids (Ceres is my favorite), and then discuss how we can personally interact with phenomena.

when is the next solar eclipse?

Afterwards, something that never gets old is finding where the International Space Station is. It really gets around, man.

where is the international space station right now?

There are all sorts of other fun ways to use Wolfram|Alpha to spur conversation and crush postprandial torpor with lots of interactivity. If a family member of yours never stops telling the internet about their dog or the kind of sandwich they are eating (I do this, and I make no apologies), you can analyze your Facebook profile. We have a blog post about it, but personally my favorite features are the word cloud and friend network images. Here’s a select few from some of the Wolfram|Alpha team.

Word Cloud

Word Cloud

If a family member particularly likes Scrabble, you can use Wolfram|Alpha to cheat improve your game. If your mom is like mine, and never stops talking about knitting, you can join in the conversation. If your sister’s favorite baseball player in 2012 is Gregor Blanco instead of Pablo Sandoval, you can compare their batting averages and then get into an argument, which every holiday occasion requires.

Gregor Blanco batting average, Pablo Sandoval batting average

By now, you’ve discovered that you can not only break the ice at family gatherings with Wolfram|Alpha, but also get into everything from raw analysis to trivia to heated debate on issues that have no reason to be debated.

How do you use Wolfram|Alpha to enhance discussion? You can add a comment here or on our Facebook page.

While we’re at it, are you still looking for a gift for the teacher, student, researcher, scientist, or hobbyist in your life? You can totally give them the gift of Wolfram|Alpha Pro. I love it when a plan comes together!


Last night my brother was debating the long term fuel cost consequences of buying a new diesel car versus a new gas car….He knew current prices of each, but barely noticed me as I typed a quick query into my phone and presented him with a slick 15 year comparative graph from W|A!

Posted by Eric December 19, 2012 at 8:20 am

I just moved from Dayton to Santa Monica and the results seem pretty accurate.

Posted by Andy McSherry December 29, 2012 at 6:53 pm