Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tech Column: It's a Bird, It's a Plane

by Bill Adler

It's a bird, it's a plane -- it's something. And now you can find out.

Wolfram Alpha, the search engine you probably never head about, does a search that will knock your socks off. Are you ready for this? With your Android smartphone or iPhone open, use your Wolfram Alpha app, or waltz over to, and search, "flights overhead."

That jet you see flying from here to there is instantly identified. Take a look at what Wolram Alpha shows on the iPhone: . WolframAlpha displays the airline, flight number, altitude and angle above.

That's the most amazing search feature I've ever seen.

You can try from your desktop. Visit and type in the same thing: "flights overhead." Outdoors Wolfram Alpha uses your phone's GPS to cross-reference your position; indoors, it uses your IP address' location, which is less accurate. For security purposes the FAA delays flight data by five minutes.

Now when you're wondering if that jet you see in the sky is taking your extended family back home, you'll know. This tip is brought to you just in time for the return flights of the Thanksgiving weekend.

Wolfram Alpha will also show you satellites that are currently overhead. The next time you see a bright light moving swiftly across the night sky, you can tell if it's one of ours -- or not.

If you have an iPhone 4S, you can use Siri to search via Wolfram Alpha. Just say, "Wolfram Alpha, overhead flights, and you'll amaze your friends and yourself. Oh, and it took me a while to figure this out: Wolfram is pronounced "wolfrum". If you say "wolfram" Siri will search for "wolf ram," which as far as I know is neither a flying machine nor any kind of mythical creature.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," He tweets at @billadler.

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