A couple of years ago, I wrote a scene wherein Dusty, my FBI agent character, is given a Miraldian “PDA” – a semi-sentient little alien device that makes the iPhone look like an actual big dumb brick, and is only called a PDA by my Earthling characters because, well, people use old names for new things. It provided an opportunity for a moment of levity:
“Go on,” August said. “Ask it a question. Any question.”
She cupped the PDA in her hands and looked down at it. Ultra-advanced alien technology was roughly the size and shape of a cosmetic compact, and shiny metalic pastel peach in color. She would have preferred black, with a lot of LED buttons and flashing lights and something, anything, to say this wasn’t just a little hollow lump of metal. The whole situation was surreal. DVDs traded for technology that might as well have been magic? She couldn’t help herself. “What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?”
“Forty-two,” an androgynous little voice promptly said.
She nearly dropped the PDA. And then she shot an accusing stare at August. “You’re winding me up.”
“No, it Googled it.” August bent over her computer and typed the question in. “That’s what it’s trained to do when it’s not sure what the answer is. If you ask for detail, it’ll tell you how it got the result.”
He showed her the search results on her screen. He was right. If you asked Google, it came up with Douglas Adams’s answer.
And, indeed, if you Google that question, the top results refer to Douglas Adams.
With this background, you’ll understand why this tidbit from Kevin Drum caught my attention:
…I tried out the WolframAlpha search engine today for the first time. It’s been getting generally panned, but it sure did an impressively good job on my test drive query. Check it out:
You’ll also understand why I promptly scampered over and asked the self-same question Dusty had asked. And why I burst out in such peals of delighted laughter that the cat nearly suffered cardiac arrest:
The search engine isn’t perfect, o’ course. I stumped it with “Does Dana Hunter drink tequila?” which should’ve been a cakewalk (yes, Dana Hunter drinks tequila. Duh). But it’s an awesome concept, I’m sure it’ll improve with age, and I think it’ll quickly become my boon companion on the research front.
Go forth and have fun with it.