Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wolfram Alpha -- A Computational Search Engine

WolframAlpha is the best search engine you've never heard of—and it’s a wholly different animal from Google and its analogs. Wolfram bills itself as a “computational knowledge engine,” accessing data from other trusted sources to generate answers to user queries; a not-at-all exhaustive list of these sources includes the CIA’s World Factbook, the United States Geological Survey, and the Dow Jones. Using a piece of software called Mathematica, Wolfram Alpha uses this externally sourced data to generate the numbers it spits back out to users. Most of the information evaluated by Wolfram is numerical in form, which means that it’s an excellent resource for scientific, quantitative data, but is less useful for researchers interested in the social sciences or pop culture, for example.

This introduction is all well and good, but you’re probably wondering to yourself: what can Wolfram Alpha do? The answer: a lot.

From the eschatological to the mundane, Wolfram Alpha has it all—or a ton of it, anyway.

Formulating a useful search query can take some getting used to, so it’s a good idea to start out with Wolfram’s own list of examples (screenshot below). Using these, you can find out your own life expectancy (mine is 82.16--not bad), the weather in Paris in December of 1980 (temperatures ranging from 23 to 55 degrees Farenheit), and the population of New York City in 1875 (1.206 million). 

If you’d like to access this from your mobile device, it’s available as an app too on iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle fire, and Windows Phone, though it will cost you a whopping $2.99. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


If your 2015 resolutions include optimizing your legal content service, you may be interested in Bestlaw. This is a free Chrome extension designed by Joe Mornin, a 3L at UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) and computer programmer, to enhance productivity in WestlawNext. According to Mornin, the quest for perfect Bluebook format was the driving force behind his ingenuity.

Once installed, Bestlaw adds a toolbar that is accessible when you retrieve a case, statute, or law review article in WestlawNext.

Available features depend on the type of document retrieved, but include copying a perfect Bluebook citation with one click (currently available for reported federal cases), copying the full text with one click, adjusting readability for viewing on mobile devices, and sharing these documents via popular social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. I would review your licensing agreement before using that last feature, though. Speaking of restrictions on sharing, one feature I found especially useful was the ability to search for the document on free sources, such as Cornell LII and Google Scholar with one click.

As you can see, many of the features involve saving time by reducing tasks to one click or eliminating needless scrolling, such as jumping to footnotes or returning to the top of the document.

While there are some limitations, Bestlaw has received great reviews overall and is worth a test drive.

If you're wondering what's in Mr. Mornin's near future, besides spending countless hours studying for bar exam(s), he is working on versions for Firefox and Lexis.