[TOOLS] Wolfram Language: This might just change everything

Stephen Wolfram, leader of the company behind Wolfram Alpha and Mathematica has just announced the immanent launch of Wolfram Language, an incredibly powerful interactive programming language with built in knowledge of the world (eg. it knows things like state capitols and English grammar) and a huge set of functions that allow people using the language to manipulate that data, bring new data into a program with just a command (eg. there’s a function that “scrapes” web sites and imports all the links on the site), and manipulate it symbolically so that it can be used throughout the programs they write. It looks pretty easy to learn, too. What all this really means is that non-techie types will have the ability to extract data from the internet, manipulate that data, use that data to make decisions, and then output the result of those decisions in a whole range of ways that include graphs, charts, geo-plots, 3D graphics, etc.. And because Wolfram language also comes with built-in “hooks” to talk to a wide variety of devices, you can even use it to trigger devices outside of your computer.

The video above (narrated by Wolfram himself) does a much better job explaining many of the language’s capabilities, but once you watch it (and if Wolfram Language lives up to what he promises), it may open up a huge flood of innovation and creativity from people who never thought they’d be able to use a programming language because so much of the stuff that takes lines and lines of code in other languages is reduced to a command or two in Wolfram Language. It should be pretty interesting to see what people do with this new tool!

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[TOOLS] How to do some really cool data analysis on the cheap

image of network

Network graph from Gephi

Historian Michelle Moravec recently posted a fantastic article on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog where she dishes up some pretty fantastic advice for scholars looking for new digital tools to help them in their work. She recounts the lessons she learned while working on her Visualizing Schneemann project, a work that uses different digital network analysis methods to analyze the correspondence of feminist artist Carolee Schneemann in order to get a better picture of her Schneemann’s social networks, influences, travels, etc. The end result is an amazing collection of graphs that really help viewers to better understand the artist.

You can (and should) read the article for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few of the digital tools Moavec used in her research. Not only are these free, but they could be a huge help to anyone interested in data visualization, digital textual analysis, or even just folks who want to actually “see” their own social networks in a new way. Happy hacking!

Gephi: A free, open source, high-powered tool for working with network graphs. If you don’t know anything about network theory, don’t panic: there are a number of tutorials that walk you through the basics of creating your own graphs. It even has a built-in tool that allows you to analyze your email account so that you see a visual representation of who you correspond with and their relationships to each other.

Raw: Raw is a much more general-purpose data visualization tool than Gephi and a heck of a lot easier to use for novices. All you need to do is cut and paste your data into the Raw web site from a source like Excel or even a flat-file database, set a few parameters, and poof! you’ve got a really snazzy looking graph in vector format (meaning you can easily resize it without getting all bit-mappy) that’ll impress anyone who sees it next time you have to do a presentation or turn in a paper.

StanfordNER: This one’s a little bit more obscure and requires a bit more technical knowledge to set up, but if you’ve ever wished that you had a tool that was able to automatically identify and extract “entities” such as names, places, organization names, etc. from big chunks of text, the Stanford Named Entity Recognizer uses some pretty fancy natural language processing techniques to do just that.

TimeMapper: Probably the coolest tool on the list (though I have to admit that I kinda have a soft spot for timelines), TimeMapper allows you to create really cool map/timeline mashups for free. All you have to do is fill out a Google spreadsheet (provided) with information such as the name of your timeline entry, dates, description, and place and TimeMapper takes your info and creates a custom timeline tied to a custom Google map so that you can visualize your information not only in time (though the timeline) but in space as well (on the Google map). The Google spreadsheet at the heart of TimeMapper even automatically converts location names to latitude and longitude coordinates! You can even spiff up your timelines with images and links for additional information.

Graph showing polarized twitter topic network

Polarized Twitter network. Click the image to see more detail.

Edit: cool new study…and a bonus tool! Not long after I posted this I happened to run across this article on mapping Twitter Topic Networks on the Pew Internet and American Life site. It’s a really fascinating piece that identifies 6 distinct patterns of behavior on Twitter: Polarized Crowds (see image to the right) where groups on either side of an issue talk to each other but interact little with their opponents; Tight Crowds of “highly interconnected people” with a few others from outside the main group; Brand Clusters where well known products, services, or celebrities form a hub that attracts large numbers of people from all over the Twittersphere; Community Clusters that form a number of smaller groups with their own individual characteristics; Broadcast Networks mainly consisting of people retweeting news from major news sources; and Support Networks that form around major brands that use Twitter for customer support. The article also includes a fantastic Method section that describes in detail how the researchers used the free NodeXL Excel Template to collect and visualize the data in their study. NodeXL can do some pretty cool stuff: check out the NodeXL Graph Gallery for tons of examples.


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[TOOLS] Walters Art Museum opens up digital collection with new free API


Image from inside Walters Art Museum

New API allows digital content creators to incorporate elements of the Walters’ collection of 10,000 objects into their own programs

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore just announced the public release of an API (Application Programming Interface for you non-coders out there) that allows creatively-minded programmers and artists to access their collections via a wide range of parameters including items from the collection, their location in the Museum, specific exhibitions, geography or origin, and many other parameters (name, keyword, catalog ID, etc.).

“So what?” you might be asking. Fair question. Basically this new API allows people to build custom web-based apps (or, with a language like Processing, even stand-alone apps) that draw their content from the collection or allow users to make customized searches through the Walters’ huge collection of 10,000+ objects that literally spans thousands of years of human history. Rather than have to “scrape” content off of the Walters’ site and risk broken links and difficult-to-manage code, people who want to incorporate art from the collection can query the database directly. Better still, everything’s available under a public license that merely requires those who tap into the database to credit the Museum.

Should be pretty interesting to see what people come up with!

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[BUSINESS] Bitcoin Demystified

Bitcoin logo

Mystified by Bitcoin? You’re not alone.

If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve probably heard heard a lot about something called “bitcoin” lately. Typically it’s billed as a “virtual currency” or, less generously, as an “alternative payment system.” Stories about Bitcoin are usually accompanied by at least one of two other elements: 1)a breathless reference to how the “anonymous currency” is the new currency of drug dealers, arms traffickers, and other criminals; and/or 2)how a lucky few people who got in on the whole Bitcoin thing before it was cool are now discovering, thanks to the incredibly volatile Bitcoin market,  that they’re Bitcoin Millionaires. If a pseudoanonymous, open source, distributed, global, virtual currency could be considered hip, Bitcoin is the new “It” coin.

Unfortunately very little of the buzz around Bitcoin actually takes the time to explain what the heck it is. How is it created? How do you get it? Where can you spend it? Is it really “money?” How the heck does the whole thing work? All in all, Bitcoin is more than a little mysterious.

Luckily there are people like Alexandra Berke out there who are able to bridge the gap between the tech-know-it-alls and the rest of us by providing a remarkably clear explanation of the inner workings of Bitcoin. In the first part of her two-part series “Bitcoin Demystified: A Hacker’s Perspective,” Berke  lays out the basic vocabulary of Bitcoin, how Bitcoins are created, how you own them, how you spend them, and how the built-in features of the virtual currency virtually guarantee that it can’t be counterfeited. It’s a great primer for anyone who’s been confused about Bitcoin. Let’s just hope she writes part 2 soon!

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[STATS] Must-read Infographic

People sure do love those infographics! These days, it seems next to impossible to read a blog, click a link on Twitter, or browse social networks without running into collections of barely-related “facts” stripped down to their barest elements and tarted up with some eyecandy. Sadly this trend is probably going to get a whole lot worse: today HubSpot unleashed “35 free templates to make content creation faster and easier” on an unsuspecting world. We weren’t sure if this bold claim was too good to be true so we decided to take one for a spin. Here’s the result. (click on it to enlarge)

An infographic making fun of infographics. If you can't see the image, you're not missing anything.

The Ultimate Infographic

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[TOOLS] zPots + Leap Motion lets you create 3D models like you’re throwing pots


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[EDUCATION] 7 Great ways to learn how to code

Chart showing the difference between a dreamer, a coder, and a hacker

Image courtesy of Paul Downey via Flickr

One of the most common pitches endured by freelance programmers comes from the enthusiastic, wanna-be entrepreneur who thinks that he or she has come up with the greatest idea for a web site (or app or technology) that the world’s ever seen. There’s just one problem: they don’t have the skills to create even a working prototype. So what do they do? They reach out to any coders who will listen to them for more than 5 seconds or who made the mistake of responding to their emails. And the pitch is always the same:


Budding Entrepreneur: “Hey! Listen! I’ve got this idea that’s gonna be the next Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Google! All I need is for someone to do the code! I don’t have any funding right now so I can’t pay you (though confidentially I’ve been working on a few angel investors and might have some funding coming through soon), but I’m willing to offer you an equity stake in my new company if you’ll do the coding for me! It’s the chance of a lifetime!”
Freelance Coder: “Uh…no.”

The problem is that everyone’s got ideas… but few people have the skills (or are willing to learn the skills) necessary to turn their ideas into something tangible enough to convince other people just how great their idea is. Those who have these skills — coders, designers, engineers, architects, Makers, etc.– acquired them with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and hard work. Remember, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. The real key to success  having the creativity to innovate combined with the skills to create what you dream.

That being said, most people can learn how to code. Granted, you might not be cranking out new operating systems or single-handedly writing console games after a few months of practice, but you’d be surprised at what you can do once you know the basics and apply a little creativity. Better yet, these days there are a number of fabulous and free (or very low cost) ways to learn how to code online.

Interested? Check out 7 best ways to learn how to code on VentureBeat.

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[TOOLS] Handy Twitter glossary will help you stop feeling like a #dork and start feeling like a Twitter #genius

Comic showing birds People often get flustered about new technologies because they feel like they’re not going to use it the right way, they might somehow break it, or (and this is a big one) that they’re going to do something wrong and end up looking stupid. And there are good reasons for these fears: often new tech isn’t just intimidating because of its perceived complexity but also because those trying to learn more about it are often confronted by a wall of impenetrable jargon or unfamiliar words.

This is especially true when it comes to social media. Not only is much of what we read filled with cryptic TXT speak, references we might not be hip enough to catch, and acronyms that make us nervous, but the whole medium also has a lot of jargon and customs that have built up over the years that often seem totally normal to regular users but can scare the heck out of new users. And, being humans who are eager to try to fit in to a new situation, many of us are too embarrassed to ask the “old timers” to define words we don’t understand. The results can be pretty horrifying (and funny).

Luckily there are people like Maggie Hibma in the world who recognize the difficulties newbies face and who are willing to take the time and effort to make things easier for those of us intimidated by the lingo. In her new blog post Definitions of 34 Twitter Terms You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask About she does an amazing job of demystifying not only the jargon you might encounter on the popular microblogging tool but also provides a wealth of insight into how and why you might even want to use the terms yourself to become a better Tweeter. Thanks, Maggie!

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[DESIGN] Play with free Google fonts for free

screen cap of interfaceYes, everyone knows that having access to too many fonts can be dangerous in the wrong hands. You don’t want to be churning out papers that look like ransom notes, do you? On the other hand, being able to choose just the right font when you need it can make a huge difference in how people perceive your work.

Unfortunately finding that right font can be tough. And finding the right font that you can use for free…well, that’s even tougher.

Luckily there’s a new (and super-handy) answer.

Monotype has teamed up with Google to offer a “lite” version of Typecast that allows anyone to test-drive dozens upon dozens of free Google fonts using a beautifully designed interface. You don’t even need an account and you don’t have to provide them with any personal info to test it out…just hop on in and start playing with fonts until you find the one you need. You can even download the type you set with the app as HTML or as a PNG file or get the CSS code you need to use your type in your web pages.

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[SCIENCE] Turn your smartphone into a digital microscope!


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