Sunday, March 18, 2012

Using Wolfram Alpha from Clojure

I have been blown away in the last year by Wolfram Alpha but I haven't done much with the developer's APIs. To make it easier to experiment with Wolfram Alpha, I wrote a simple Clojure wrapper for the Java APIs. You can get a copy at github.

In case you don't want to grab the github repo, here is most of the code:

(ns wolfram)

(def appid (System/getenv "WOLFRAM_APP_ID"))
(def engine (com.wolfram.alpha.WAEngine.))
(.setAppID engine appid)
(.addFormat engine "plaintext")

(defn query [input]
  (let [query (.createQuery engine)]
    (.setInput query input)
    (let [result (.performQuery engine query)]
      {:pods
       (for [pod (.getPods result)]
         {:title (.getTitle pod)
          :sub-pods
          (for [sub-pod (.getSubpods pod)]
            (for [contents (.getContents sub-pod)]
              (.getText contents)))})})))
Notice that you need to set the API key for your application in an environment variable. You get 2000 free API calls a month. Here is some sample output (with some output removed for brevity):
test=> (query "distance between San Diego and San Francisco")
{:pods ({:title "Input interpretation", :sub-pods (("distance | from | San Diego, California\nto | San Francisco, California"))} {:title "Result", :sub-pods (("453.7 miles"))} {:title "Unit conversions", :sub-pods (("730.2 km  (kilometers)") ("730194 meters") ("7.302?10^7 cm  (centimeters)") ("394.3 nmi  (nautical miles)"))} {:title "Direct travel times", :sub-pods (("aircraft  (550 mph) | 49 minutes 30 seconds\nsound | 36 minutes\nlight in fiber | 3.41 ms  (milliseconds)\nlight in vacuum | 2.44 ms  (milliseconds)\n(assuming constant-speed great-circle path)"))} {:title "Map", :sub-pods ((""))})}
user=> (query "pi")
{:pods ({:title "Input", :sub-pods (("pi"))} {:title "Decimal approximation", :sub-pods (("3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058..."))} {:title "Property", :sub-pods (("pi is a transcendental number"))} {:title "Number line", :sub-pods ((""))} {:title "Continued fraction", :sub-pods (("[3; 7, 15, 1, 292, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 3, 1, 14, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 84, 2, 1, 1, 15, ...]"))} {:title "Alternative representations", :sub-pods (("pi = 180 ?") ("pi = -i log(-1)") ("pi = cos^(-1)(-1)"))} {:title "Series representations", :sub-pods (("pi = 4 sum_(k=0)^infinity(-1)^k/(2 k+1)") ("pi = -2+2 sum_(k=1)^infinity2^k/(binomial(2 k, k))") ("pi = sum_(k=0)^infinity(50 k-6)/(2^k binomial(3 k, k))"))} {:title "Integral representations", :sub-pods (("pi = 2 integral_0^infinity1/(t^2+1) dt") ("pi = 4 integral_0^1 sqrt(1-t^2) dt") ("pi = 2 integral_0^infinity(sin(t))/t dt"))})}

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A bright future, with some potential problems

Even though the news media portrays a dire world situation, I disagree. In the last few decades the world has become a safer place and fundamental shifts in technology keep driving down the cost of computing resources, networks, and storage that enable greatly increased global productivity. For much of the world globalization is a rising tide that floats most people's boats.

The problem is that not everyone benefits from new paradigms for constant lifelong learning, diminishing advantages of organizations who hold to old mega-scale production and business models, and a free flow of information. The book The Power of Pull is a good reference for ideas how to take advantage of the transitions that the world is going through, whether you like them or not!

The losers in this new world are people and organizations who cannot (or don't want to) adapt and learn and who expect material rewards that are out of touch with their productivity. The biggest potential problem that concerns me is that some of these "losers" have tremendous political and economic clout and will struggle to hang on to old advantages instead of engaging in more forward thinking and productive activities. You don't have to look further than businesses that are "too big to fail" to understand the real dangers of powerful incumbents to our future prosperity and security.

On a personal level, I do believe that for the most part we have control of our lives and that both our happiness and sadness in life is mostly an internal process in our own minds and is fairly independent of the world at large. Certainly, some people are born into, or live, in very harsh situations, but for most people there is at least the opportunity for material success and personal happiness. A cliche, but true: people who live in the past tend to be depressed, those who live in the future are anxious, and those who live in the moment are usually happy and content. The more we can focus our attention on what we are doing in the moment the happier and more productive we can be.

I leave it up to you how you want to manage your life, but I will mention a few things that work for me:

  • I don't waste much time exposing myself to the negatively toned corporate-slanted news media. It is necessary to understand what is happening in the world, and why, but a few minutes a day reading news stories from multiple sources around the world suffices.
  • Everyday I enjoy the time I set aside for learning new technologies, practicing a musical instrument, trying new recipes, hiking with friends, and generally enjoying my family. Without fun time, it is difficult to be productive while working.
  • I spend time and resources helping and mentoring people, and working extra time each week to support three very worthwhile charities. I am convinced that a quality life requires the certain knowledge that we are personally helping to make the world a better place.
  • Time is probably our most precious resource. In addition to saving the time not wasted on corporate news, I try to evaluate how I spend my time, realizing that watching TV, watching too many movies, and other mindless time sinks all have tremendous opportunity costs: how much more can we accomplish and how much more can we enjoy our lives if we apply critical thinking to how we spend our time?