Saturday, June 06, 2009

Nice Add-On -- or Google Buster?

SMART INVESTORS STRIVE TO STAY INFORMED about all the sectors and individual stocks in play. But the sheer volume of information you can find while wandering online can be daunting. So finding tools that winnow available information into a useful format is a big plus.

A new service debuted on May 18 that can keep data nerds (like me) clicking away for hours. Wolfram/Alpha (, which calls itself a “computational knowledge engine,” collects interesting data tidbits from a variety of sources. It not only provides answers, but offers additional context and related info. Although mostly impressive, the results can be confounding.

For instance, a query that didn’t compute was “MSFT options,” which resulted in a screen saying, “Wolfram/Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input.” But “gold futures” gives you the recent price chart, and a volatility graph.

I found it most useful for collecting fundamental data on a publicly traded company, and for comparing side-by-side the financial performance of two companies like, say, Apple and IBM. You can see a list of examples of what is currently possible by going to the Money and Finance sample page at

ANOTHER GOOD STARTING POINT FOR THOSE interested in seeing what can be done on the site is founder Steven Wolfram’s overview video; there is a link to it at the bottom of the “New to Wolfram/Alpha?” box on the right-hand side of every page.

Wolfram, who received a Ph.D in theoretical physics at age 20, launched Wolfram Research in 1986 and published the program on which the Website is based in 1988.

Millions of pixels have been spilled discussing whether Wolfram/Alpha is a “Google Buster.” I’ve seen dozens of comments characterizing the site as “a cross between Google and a calculator,” but I disagree. It will never replace the Internet search engines, but it does present interesting information that’s well formatted.

Another plus of the site is that the data have been vetted by one of the data curators on Wolfram’s staff. The firm has been building its database for years, thanks to its flagship product, Mathematica, a program that, after 20 years, has become a very powerful computation and data-visualization engine. When you click on “Source Information” at the bottom of each query page, a box pops open that notes that the primary source of financial data is Wolfram Mathematica’s own database. Other sources for financial data include Xignite, Morningstar, BankRate, and our parent company, Dow Jones.

If you enter a ticker or a company name in the query field, you’ll get a delayed quote followed by fundamental data, a price graph, and return comparisons to several competitors, the S&P 500, and Treasury bills. Most of the boxes containing results have drop-down menus that allow you to change the display period or the type of data displayed. For instance, the default for company data is to display fundamentals (market cap, total revenue, number of employees, etc.), but you can change that to select financial ratios or various financial statements.

So—is Wolfram/Alpha worth adding to investors’ and traders’ tool kits? Since it’s free for now, what the heck. (The site is ad-supported, but the ads are not at all invasive.) But it’s less useful if you progress beyond displaying fundamental data or making loan payoff calculations.

Spokesman John Ekizian says, “I know we’ll get a lot bigger and better on financial data as time goes on.” He says that people have been making ample use of the feedback box at the bottom of each page, supplying Wolfram with new ideas. Ekizian says that companies will be able to load their own data privately, for in-house use later on. “We will create professional versions separately and privately in the future,” he says.

Wolfram/Alpha has already turned into a blogosphere group project. People are teaching each other how to use it and correcting each other, sometimes gently, sometimes not. Searching a Twitter feed on “WolframAlpha” generates dozens of posts every minute, many complaining it’s impossible to use; many others saying it’s great.

, consolidated: Tech Investor News, based north of San Francisco, launched the Tech Investor News Network ( on May 28. We got a look at it just prior to the public launch. TIN previously had several online sites that focused on individual companies, such as Apple Investor News and Google Investor News.

Tech Investor News uses a process called intelligent news search that groups headlines into relevant categories using filters developed and continually updated by human editors. Founder Frank Cioffi says this automated/human system makes TIN’s headline results more accurate than electronic aggregators. The headlines are displayed with the most recent news on top, and each page is automatically refreshed every 15 minutes. You can update the page manually by hitting the Refresh button on your browser; the countdown to the next automatic page update ticks away near the top of the screen.

The summary page collects the news in categories such as Analysts + Commentary, Top Tech Headlines and Blogs + Tech Dialogue. Others include Software, Consumer Tech + Gadgets, Mobile + Wireless and The Internet. If you click on a category heading, you’ll get an entire page of articles on that subject. When you roll your cursor over a headline, a pop-up article preview is displayed, so you can decide whether to click on it and read the entire thing. Clicking on an article headline opens a new window, where you can read the article in its original setting.

The articles that TIN picks up all seem to fit very neatly within their categories, which is extremely helpful for the overloaded news junkie. This site is also ad-supported—however, the ads are quite a bit more obvious than WolframAlpha’s.

: Bob Brinker ( often tweets links to useful articles about banking and debt. He’s also a co-founder of, which lets users upload files, like documents or photos, and post a tweet about them in one step. A very helpful service for frequent tweeters. I’ve been following Twitter_Tips ( for a few weeks, and have picked up all kinds of good ideas and advice, such as how to avoid Twitter-phishing scams, and how to attract and retain followers. I’m there, too, at

Published in Barron’s, June 1, 2009. 

Posted by twcarey on 06/06 at 01:17 AM
Published in Barron's • (0) CommentsPermalink