What’s troubling about WolframAlpha

From an AP review (dated May 13) of WolframAlpha by Brian Bergstein:

In the interest of full
disclosure, I'll admit that I'm troubled by the potential for
WolframAlpha. I fear the implications of an information butler that is
considered so smart and so widely applicable that people turn to
it without question, by default, whenever they want to know something.

What's that, you say? We already have such a service?

for all the fears that Google is making us stupid by making it too easy
to look up information, at least Google and its rivals enable the
critical thinking that comes from scoping out multiple sources.

search engines that deliver links that match keywords in your query,
WolframAlpha is more of a black box. If you have it perform a
calculation, it gives you an answer, along with a small link for
"source information." Open that and you'll generally be told the data
was "curated"—found and verified—by the company behind WolframAlpha. In
other words, "trust us."

The site does suggest ways to
track down similar information from other sources, including government
statistics, proprietary databases, almanacs and the collaborative
encyclopedia Wikipedia. To confirm WolframAlpha's data I went a
suddenly old-fashioned route—through Web searches on Google and Yahoo.
I didn't find any errors, but taking that step made me wonder why I
didn't just use Google or Yahoo to begin with.

Link: Review: Flaws in Web's much-touted WolframAlpha.

Rory Litwin has posted similar comments at Library Juice: Wolfram Alpha: Bad Idea!

Technology to help you compose inane chatter

Rob Walker writes in the New York Times about Plinky, a tool to help you think of stuff to write online. Heaven forbid you let your tweet stream (or your Wave) go silent while you think of something worthwhile to say. That's for old people!


It has never been easier to express yourself in public. Whatever you
might want to say, the online tools to let you say it to a
(theoretically) worldwide audience are innumerable. Say it long, say it
short, say what you want, when you want and how often you want. As the
title of a forthcoming book about blog culture puts it: “Say
.” You have the technology. The only thing the technology
cannot do is solve this problem: What if you don’t really have anything
to express?

Ah, but technology can solve that problem for you. Plinky.com,
which officially went online in January, exists specifically to offer
what it calls prompts, meant to inspire interesting thoughts to share
with the world.


Thus Plinky’s daily prompts: Which movie’s characters would you
befriend in real life? What will you do when the zombies come? Who
would win a fight between a bear and a shark? Plinky users responded to
that last question by the hundreds. A prompt about songs for a road
trip got more than 2,000 replies, making it the most popular query to
date. The intentionally innocuous nature of the prompts makes them
reminiscent of canned cocktail-party conversation starters. The
difference is that while a tongue-tied party guest can at least try to
cultivate an air of brooding mystery that might lead someone else to
start the conversation, the Internet wallflower is totally invisible.
Chime in, or you’re forgotten. Thus a Plinky slogan: “Hey, didn’t you
use to have a blog?” Poignant.

Link: Say What? (I like the accompanying comic too)

I bet some Google engineers are already working (in their 20% time) to add similar semi-automated chatter features into Wave so your conversations can be self generating. Call it Standing Wave ™.

I hope to write more about Google Wave later… I'm not sure yet what I think of it. I watched part of the presentation and it looks impressive, but I'm not convinced it's necessary. It's telling for me that their goal was simply to create "what email would look like if it were invented today." That seems odd to me (but typically Google).

Update: Just noticed that Scott Rosenberg (author of the above mentioned book about blogs) posted a nice analysis of Wave at his site: Do you prefer Google Wave's swirl or a clean river?

Dave Eggers Defends Print and Reading

Novelist Dave Eggers, in a speech excerpted in the New Yorker:

To any of you who are feeling down, and saying, “Oh, no one’s reading
anymore”: Walk into 826 on any afternoon. There are no screens there,
it’s all paper, it’s all students working shoulder to shoulder invested
in their work, writing down something, thinking their work might get
published. They put it all on the page, and they think, “Well, if this
person who works next to me cares so much about what I’m writing, and
they’re going to publish it in their next anthology or newspaper or
whatever, then I’m going to invest so much more in it.” And then
meanwhile, they’re reading more than I did at their age. …

Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power
of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it,
fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down.
I actually have established an e-mail address, deggers@826national.org—if
you want to take it down—if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever
despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or
books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s
will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes
out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.

Link: Dave Eggers will prove you wrong (The New Yorker via MobyLives).

"826" is 826 National, a fantastic nonprofit that runs writing and tutoring centers for kids. Eggers was being honored for the project at this event.

NYT on “The Coming Superbrain”

John Markoff writes about AI, Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity, and other such things in a New York Times article. Excerpt:

Today, artificial intelligence, once the preserve of science fiction
writers and eccentric computer prodigies, is back in fashion and
getting serious attention from NASA and from Silicon Valley companies like Google
as well as a new round of start-ups that are designing everything from
next-generation search engines to machines that listen or that are
capable of walking around in the world. A.I.’s new respectability is
turning the spotlight back on the question of where the technologymight be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly. […]

Profiled in the documentary “Transcendent Man,”
which had its premier last month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and with
his own Singularity movie due later this year, Dr. Kurzweil has become
a one-man marketing machine for the concept of post-humanism. He is the
co-founder of Singularity University,
a school supported by Google that will open in June with a grand goal —
to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to
understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing
technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address
humanity’s grand challenges.”

Not content with the development of
superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea
that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be
translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality
possible — within his lifetime.

That has led to no shortage of
raised eyebrows among hard-nosed technologists in the engineering
culture here, some of whom describe the Kurzweilian romance with
supermachines as a new form of religion. […]

will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the
‘great dawn,’ ” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s
not fair.”

Link: The Coming Superbrain

Revisiting Snow’s Two Cultures

New Scientist asked several prominent people for an update on C.P. Snow's Two Cultures: Science and Art: Still Two Cultures Divided?  I finally got around to reading Two Cultures a few months ago. What I liked best was Stefan Collini's historical introduction (which takes up about half the book and is worth the price).

Collini is the first respondent in New Scientist's article:

C. P. Snow intended to call his lecture "The Rich and
the Poor" – and regretted not doing so. This title points to what
remains valuable about the essay now. Helping the world's impoverished
majority meet their basic needs remains an obligation of richer
societies, and applied science is a vital tool.

other ways, though, Snow's lecture is superficial and misleading.
Despite its subsequent reputation, it does not make useful distinctions
between types of enquiry or discipline, making a thin contrast between
"physicists" and "literary intellectuals" (mostly modernist poets and
novelists, not scholars in the humanities). It also identified a rather
outdated element of English cultural attitudes and snobbery, rather
than a true divide between disciplines. It makes better sense to talk
of "two-hundred-and-two cultures" than of "two cultures". […]

more damaging influence of Snow's lecture has been to encourage the
prejudice that natural science is the only reliable source of
"objective" knowledge, and to support the misguided belief that science
and technology are undervalued in the UK and so should receive
preferential treatment.

Update: Seed Magazine has a similar feature about Two Cultures, but theirs is video  because Seed is all hip and youthful: Are We Beyond The Two Cultures?

The Complexities of Dying in a High-Tech Era

I thought this recent Fresh Air interview with Robert Martensen was very good: End of Life Care in America, A Doctor's Diagnosis. Martensen discusses the problem of medical intervention in the very final stages of life.

He has written a book called A Life Worth Living: A Doctor's Reflections on Illness in a High-Tech Era.

From the book description:

Critical illness is a fact of
life. Even those of us who enjoy decades of good health are touched by
it eventually, either in our own lives or in those of our loved ones.
And when this happens, we grapple with serious and often confusing
choices about how best to live with our afflictions.
A Life Worth Living is
a book for people facing these difficult decisions. Robert Martensen, a
physician, historian, and ethicist, draws on decades of experience with
patients and friends to explore the life cycle of serious illness, from
diagnosis to end of life. He connects personal stories with reflections
upon mortality, human agency, and the value of “cutting-edge”
technology in caring for the critically ill. Timely questions emerge:
To what extent should efforts to extend human life be made? What is the
value of nontraditional medical treatment? How has the American
health-care system affected treatment of the critically ill? And
finally, what are our doctors’ responsibilities to us as patients, and
where do those responsibilities end? Using poignant case studies,
Martensen demonstrates how we and our loved ones can maintain dignity
and resilience in the face of life’s most daunting circumstances.

Novelist Jim Harrison's blurb gets to the heart of the matter:

A Life Worth Living is a deeply engaging book. It can be read
as a self-defense manual. In fact it should be read by, say, anyone
over forty-five because we are all destined to do battle with the
medical industrial complex which seems quite confused about helping us
out of life. Martensen, who is both an M.D. and an historian of
medicine, gracefully illumines the problems we all face.” – Jim
Harrison, author of Returning to Earth


In Mortal Hands

InMortalHands This new book sounds very interesting: In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke. From the book description:

This provocative history of nuclear power is perfectly timed for today,
when Americans are gravely concerned with nuclear terrorism, and a
nuclear renaissance is seen as a possible solution to global warming.
Few have truly come to terms with the complexities of an issue which
may determine the future of the planet. Nuclear weapons, it was once
hoped, would bring wars to an end; instead, they spurred a massive arms
race that has recently expanded to include North Korea and I ran. Once
seen as a source of unlimited electricity, nuclear reactors breed
contamination and have been used as covers for secret weapons programs,
from India and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran. 

The evolving
story of nuclear power, as told by industry insider Stephanie Cooke,
reveals the gradual deepening of our understanding of the pros and cons
of this controversial energy source. Drawing on her unprecedented
access, Cooke shows us how, time and again, the stewards of the nuclear
age—the more-is-better military commanders and civilian nuclear
boosters—have fallen into the traps of their own hubris and wishful
thinking as they tried to manage the unmanageable. Their mistakes are
on the verge of being repeated again, which is why this book deserves
especially close attention now.

The author has a web site for the book at In Mortal Hands.