Guests: John C. Dvorak, Becky Worley, and Molly Wood
Recorded: May 17, 2009
Published: May 18, 2009
TWiT 195 •Previous episode – Next episode
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Leo Laporte Bandwidth for this WEEK in TECH is provided by AOL Radio at aol.com/podcasting.
This is TWiT, this WEEK in TECH, episode 195 for May 18, 2009: A Series Of Tube Tops
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Leo Laporte Hi, this is Leo Laporte. Before we begin the show, a program note; I had a great interview with Stephen Wolfram the creator of Wolfram Alpha on Saturday, right about when they were launching of the product. He talked about how Wolfram Alpha was created, what its point is, how it works. I think it was very interesting. It’s about a half hour interview and I decided to stick it at the end of this podcast. So, we are about to begin TWiT, I hope you’ll enjoy it and then stick around afterwards for a special half hour interview with Stephen Wolfram. Thanks.
This is TWiT episode 195 and we are gathered around on a very hot Petaluma afternoon in studio, everybody is sweltering, sweating. And I think this is going to mean a particularly interesting TWiT as people try to rush through the stories and get out of here or and/or take off their clothes. Starting with John C. Dvorak…
Becky Worley Already in a bikini….
John C. Dvorak Wouldn’t be something you really want to see.
Leo Laporte In a Speedo, he is doing the Borat.
John C. Dvorak You know the joke of it is, I am wearing Speedos.
Leo Laporte Underneath?
Becky Worley Wow!
Leo Laporte Underneath your pants? Go ahead let’s see.
Becky Worley Mayday! Wow!
Leo Laporte Oh they’re Speedo shoes. They’re Speedo shoes. That’s just a blatant rip off of what I’m wearing!
John C. Dvorak So you can say you saw Dvorak wearing Speedos. Now, those are – that’s some sort of [indiscernible].
Becky Worley Oh my god.
Leo Laporte These are Crocs.
John C. Dvorak Oh Crocs, these are like croc of Crocs. These are phoney.
Leo Laporte They are phoney Crocs. That’s what I’m saying, it’s a complete and utter rip off.
Becky Worley Wow!
John C. Dvorak Crocs are crap anyway. These rubber shoes are –
Leo Laporte Rubber shoes are rubber shoes. Mario Batali says you can put these in the dishwasher.
John C. Dvorak But you can say I was wearing Speedos.
Becky Worley I really thought you wanted me look down your pant leg. I was kind of horrified.
John C. Dvorak You were hoping. You were hoping.
Molly Wood I was pretty glad that the pant went up that way and not this way.
John C. Dvorak But it’s funny that – no, hey, I am not Steve Jobs, okay.
Leo Laporte You can tell the party’s already begun, to my left Becky Worley of ABC News; to my right, Molly Wood of CBS Interactive. We’ve got a distinguish party here.
Becky Worley You know what I was thinking about this on the way up? This is mixed-doubles.
Leo Laporte Mixed-doubles?
Molly Wood You’re right.
Becky Worley Not only is it mixed-doubles but it’s a really good pairing because Leo and I are both sort of perky, bright side of life kind of people and Molly has a great ability to rant, but stay very likable about it. And Dvorak is king of curmudgeon. So, really you could do perky with sort of curmudgeony either way, boy girl, girls on boys.
Leo Laporte It’s so interesting because in fact I have a list, a notebook that I do to prepare the shows and to put together the casting. You’re listed under perky.
Becky Worley I knew that.
Leo Laporte She’s listed under ran but nice and John is listed under...
John C. Dvorak You don’t have any of that in there, you’re just –
Becky Worley Look at that binder.
John C. Dvorak That’s just some binder you’ve pulled out.
Becky Worley That is so organised.
Leo Laporte Oh it’s upside down.
Becky Worley Oh! He has an algorithm for mixing and matching.
Leo Laporte I actually do.
Becky Worley [Indiscernible] right combination of rage and friendliness.
John C. Dvorak It’s called who can you get to come in.
Leo Laporte Not so it’s really very much of a – it is a cooking show, it’s a recipe. I always plan the show out very carefully. What? What was that?
Becky Worley I’m just laughing, sorry.
John C. Dvorak She’s worked with you too long.
Molly Wood That makes me feel actually even more guilty for how often I can’t – I say no.
John C. Dvorak So, let’s get to the news.
Leo Laporte You know what I do?
Becky Worley I want to, I want to.
Leo Laporte You know what I do? I build the show around you if you can’t show up. I change – then I know where I’m – you are the starting point.
Molly Wood Well, that’s helpful, I feel less guilty now.
Becky Worley John is impatient already.
John C. Dvorak Let’s go, come on.
Molly Wood Yeah, yeah, it is about a thousand degrees in here.
John C. Dvorak The people – they have me on the show – that these guys in this chat rooms to move things along.
Molly Wood Right. Well, what’s important?
Becky Worley You tell us.
John C. Dvorak Wolfram Alpha launches, this is the story.
Leo Laporte Wolfram Alpha, that’s the number one story. They started on Friday, today’s the weekend they launched. I talked to Stephen Wolfram yesterday, I had a good long interview with him. So, what do you think of Wolfram?
Molly Wood Winding it back out, because I’ve seen it, I get the general gist but going into the story, I had no idea what the heck was that about. So, somebody do the summation?
Leo Laporte Thumbnail: Stephen Wolfram is a physicist by training. He went to Caltech, got his Ph.D. in physics at Caltech at the age of 20. At the age of 22, won the MacArthur grant, the youngest recipient ever of the genius prize. He became very interested in computational physics and really became a computer wiz and believes that computers can be used to solve physics problems to discover new physical theorems. In fact he’s gone so far now, he’s written a science book; 1,200 page kind of manifesto about physics in which he says – I think that computational physics is the future and the idea is to write every possible program and you’ll find in every possible program you’ll learn all sorts of new things.
He created a program called Mathematica, it’s a $2,000 program. It’s used by mathematicians, mathematics students, very popular; it’s been around for 20 years.
John C. Dvorak Yeah.
Leo Laporte Have you used – do you know anything about Mathematica, John?
John C. Dvorak I think I may have been the first guy to plug it.
Leo Laporte You discovered it?
John C. Dvorak I think so. I think this was at InfoWorld or something.
Leo Laporte It was very innovative, still is. It’s a notebook format. You can – it’s free form, you write equations, it will graph them. It’s very – and it has its own symbolic language. And that’s kind of key because what he then did, and this was and this was five years ago, did it completely stealthfully, he said we’re going to try to create a computational engine for the Internet based on this symbolic language in Mathematica that will allow people to essentially compute anything, solve any problem by taking arbitrary data sets and asking question about those data sets.
He’s been doing this for five years. It only became public a few months ago. I asked him why stealth. He said because “I don’t [indiscernible] know if it will work or not.” He said it couldn’t even work until very recently, he didn’t have the computational power to make this happen. So, he went online this weekend, it looks on the surface of it and I think this is a problem for him, like Google. It looks like a search engine. But it ain’t a search engine, that’s not – you’re suppose to enter in – I’m not clear on how to use it.
Molly Wood Well, it’s a little bit baffling, yeah. There was –
Becky Worley Okay.
Molly Wood – kind of a great headline in PC World actually about it that just said, “I am not smart enough for Wolfram Alpha”. And that’s kind of how I feel.
John C. Dvorak Yeah, true.
Molly Wood Like for one thing, I can barely say it without saying “Wolthram Alphra.”
John C. Dvorak “Alphra”?
Leo Laporte Well it’s kind of hard to say.
John C. Dvorak You can’t say it.
Molly Wood Which is kind of annoying. So if they could change the name that would be super.
Becky Worley I’ve been saying Wolfgang Puck.
Molly Wood I am not smart enough for Wolfgang Puck. I went there and just tried to enter something and nothing happened.
Becky Worley Me too.
Molly Wood But mostly he has a few – there are suggestions on the side, like things to enter. And then if you enter all those –
John C. Dvorak You enter San Francisco you get a whole bunch of stuff.
Molly Wood So, is that even remotely useful?
Leo Laporte But that’s a trivial use of it!
John C. Dvorak No, I know but it’s a very handy use if you’re a talk show host.
Leo Laporte Yes, that’s true.
Molly Wood What it basically does is if you enter a query that it has the right kind of data set for, it spits out a report. I mean, you get graphs and you get stats and you get interpretations.
John C. Dvorak And you can make a PDF of it and put it in somebody’s binder, and the next thing you look like a genius.
Molly Wood Basically it’s just homework: done.
Leo Laporte He said – I asked him and he said, I said if – do you ever get any surprising results? He said oh, every time I use it I get unusual results. He said, for instance, if you put in a first name, one of the things you’ll see, it plots first names against when they were used. He said I can give you your life expectancy based on your first name statistically because Molly was only used in these years, and the chances are you’re a certain age. And so it has life expectancy information, it has – it’s combining databases, information databases in unusual ways. It uses Mathematica underlying, he says every query is converted to a symbolic mathematical query. It’s very heavy duty.
John C. Dvorak Anyway, so people should check it out.
Becky Worley It seems just from looking at it before the show –
John C. Dvorak But it’s not Google.
Becky Worley – totally non-sequitur, I mean, it just seems so random.
Molly Wood It is.
Becky Worley And you just have to wonder if expectations being high, people being confused...
John C. Dvorak Well I think the problem is that people immediately confuse it with Google, and they call it a search engine; it’s neither. It’s not to be – it’s not a competitor to Google, in fact they have a Google link on it and it’s not a search engine by any means.
Molly Wood Well, it’s very hard to classify.
John C. Dvorak It’s just something else.
Molly Wood And it’s a little bit hard to determine what you are going to get. What it is, is basically just wonderful information gathering and kind of extreme geekery. I don’t think that in terms of the rest of the world, they are going to be talking about Wolfram Alpha nearly as much as we are. And they’re are not going to be talking about it at all frigging impossible to say. But I think it is almost just like fun data mining, like, it’s fun! I put my name in: turns out there’s only 124,956 people alive today named Molly.
Leo Laporte Named Molly. Isn’t that cool?
Molly Wood Yeah, right. It’s just neat.
Becky Worley Yet another timesink.
Molly Wood Yeah, that’s exactly what it is.
Leo Laporte He said, the other thing he said it’s so –
Molly Wood It’s a needle in a rabbit hole, is what it is.
Leo Laporte There’s a learning curve and he said that as people use it they – he’s watched even over the last 48 hours and people have been asking better and better questions. He – so, I think that some of it is that. I asked him, “What is your goal for this in five to 10 years?” He said, “Eventually, I want this to be – you can ask a question and it will – anything that is computational, it will be able to solve. Just kind of a universal computational engine.”
Becky Worley Wasn’t that Ask Jeeves goal?
John C. Dvorak Well, no. Ask Jeeves’ was to do regular searches using the a standard language query.
Leo Laporte Right but it was still a search engine. So, the difference is Google or Ask Jeeves is only searching what somebody has already answered and put on the net.
Becky Worley Yes, but in his own FAQ he says –
Leo Laporte This creates new answers.
Becky Worley – you have to ask something that’s already known. He says that in his own FAQ.
Molly Wood But then he draws these relational –
John C. Dvorak Known doesn’t mean on the net.
Molly Wood Right, he draws these sort of relational connections, right? He makes relationships. What the engine does is make relationships between data and spit out other knowledge basically. Like it sort of adds to the body of knowledge about something that is already known, I guess.
Becky Worley Is this just worship of a guy who happens to be obscenely smart who is pandering to humanity?
John C. Dvorak When did she – she’s like the sceptical one here!
Becky Worley Oh, I’m supposed to be perky! I’m supposed to be perky.
Leo Laporte I think that’s exactly – that’s the question though. You look at something like this and either the guy is a crackpot or he’s a genius and we’re in – and I can’t figure out.
Molly Wood I think it’s the death of thought, this thing. Because really...
John C. Dvorak Oh, we’ve got two of them here.
Molly Wood …if you think about it, this is the kind of thing that means that in the future you don’t actually have to know anything yourself. You don’t have to do any of your own kind of drawing of relationships...
John C. Dvorak And why should you?
Molly Wood ...between the data in your head and the data that you’ve got. You just plug it all in here and then boom: it tells you things.
Leo Laporte Not at all. I don’t think it’s going to replace thought. In fact, I think the idea you think – most of the thought is asking the right query and then finding out interesting relationships. We’ll see. I don’t know. I –
Molly Wood I just like that you very seriously said, “I don’t think this is going to replace thought. I don’t know.”
Leo Laporte Hey, I listen to you and I pay attention to what you say.
Molly Wood That’s not going to happen.
Leo Laporte I have to say I just honor the guy because it takes a grandiose vision, which this clearly is, to make any progress. Unless you say “man can fly, and we’re going to figure out how” or “maybe it’s possible to make a machine in a website that can solve every problem”. You don’t try these things. So, I admire him. I mean it’s a gutsy thing to do.
Molly Wood In all honesty –
John C. Dvorak I just put in a query, I got an “I’m sorry Dave” message.
Leo Laporte Yes, they are really overburdened right now.
John C. Dvorak Then of course everyone that has been listening to us –
Leo Laporte Is going there.
Molly Wood In all honesty though I think that this is phenomenal. I think that search was the first great frontier in terms of breaki