WolframAlpha for iOS

Siri uses parts of Wolfram|Alpha when making computations. I’ve been testing out the stand-alone Wolfram|Alpha app for the last couple months. It’s sophisticated and impressive. Here’s the description from the App Store:

Remember the Star Trek computer? It’s finally happening–with Wolfram|Alpha. Building on 25 years of development led by Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram|Alpha has rapidly become the world’s definitive source for instant expert knowledge and computation.

Across thousands of domains–with more continually added–Wolfram|Alpha uses its vast collection of algorithms and data to compute answers and generate reports for you.

Parts of Wolfram|Alpha are used in the Apple Siri Assistant; this app gives you access to the full power of the Wolfram|Alpha computational knowledge engine.

These categories are included:

  • Math
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Engineering
  • Astronomy
  • Music
  • Sports
  • Linguistics
  • Socioeconomics
  • And many more

Here’s what it looks like when you open the app:


1_opening sceen


That extended (and I mean, extended) keyboard tips you off as to its capabilities.

Unfortunately, my very first query did not go so well


3_fire 2


4_fire 3


2_fire 1


5_fire 4


Maybe that’s a protective measure?

Wolfram Alpha offers a ton of categories, which you can access in browse format, as well as see some display formats to get you going:




7_Display formats


I had much better success with the app after my initial failed foray. How do you play the impossible-to-remember Dbmin6 chord?


8_Guitar Chord


Who was the tallest person ever? (Now over to the iPhone app.)


9_Tallest Person


But you can do much more complicated stuff:


10_Human Genome


Per my wife’s bidding, I looked up the structure of acetone (she already knew it):




That’s just scratching the surface. Wolfram|Alpha is like Google meets a super-charged calculator, plus more smarts to boot. It can generate passwords for you, give you tide information, tell you the most popular boy names, and perform lots of other search tasks I haven’t tried yet.

The app has lots of nice little touches, too. You can use the share sheet to export the url link for your query, which you can then access via a Web browser or in-app later on. The app saves your search history, and even allows you to make favorites, so you can quickly access repeated searches.

Find the app (universal for iPad and iPhone) in the App Store here.



Thanks to the makers of Wolfram|Alpha for the free download for the purposes of review.

Kaplan’s 2015 MCAT Prep Live Online Course: Initial Impressions

This blog’s wide range of coverage from Septuagint studies to parenting updates, from musings about the good life (and good music) to app reviews… is nothing compared to the amount of content my wife has to learn for her MCAT exam.

To help her prepare, she’s taking an MCAT prep course through Kaplan Test Prep. Here are some of the books I’ve seen her working through regularly the last months:


Kaplan MCAT prep course books
(Image via Kaplan)


More specifically, she’s doing the Live Online MCAT Prep course:

Enjoy the structure, support, and convenience of learning from an engaging, score-qualified MCAT instructor in an online classroom environment. Off-camera instructors are also available during every class to answer your private questions in real-time. Plus. you’ll get additional live instruction from our highest-rated MCAT experts via The MCAT Channel.

As she draws near the testing date, I think it’s the full-length practice tests that have been most useful–a dozen are included. You receive your score right away, with a chance to work through missed questions. There’s plenty of good science content, of course, and the test-taking tips and strategies offer an extra boost in preparation.

The course includes many hours of live, interactive, and pre-recorded video instruction. I’ve also seen my wife take advantage of the MCAT Channel, which is live instruction above and beyond the regular weekly course time. Eric Chiu, Executive Director of Pre-Medical Programs at Kaplan, puts it this way:

And we’re the only company that offers the MCAT Channel. It makes available live instruction, six days a week: Monday through Thursday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as well as weekday summer afternoons. Students can log in to the channel if they need more help. This allows students to pinpoint where they need content review. We place our most expert (10 best, top-rated by others) instructors here. The MCAT Channel allows students to get questions answered in real time.

(Read more of part 1 of my interview with Eric here.)

Here are some more initial impressions from the course, courtesy of the course-taker herself:

  • It’s well-structured and well-staffed
  • It’s flexible, but to take advantage of the offering, it requires a significant investment of time–for the class, the homework, and the reading
  • The staff are encouraging and available–they want to be in touch to help
  • The online course has been technically smooth, even though we have an old computer (2008! going strong… sort of)
  • The program and videos have all streamed smoothly
  • There’s helpful information about applying for med school and AAMC updates
  • Instructors are knowledgeable
  • The course includes very helpful online resources with instructions and encouragement to use them


We’ll write more about individual components of the course later on, as well. Learn more about the Live Online MCAT Prep course here.



Many thanks to Kaplan for giving us access to the Live Online MCAT Prep course for the purposes of offering an unbiased review. More to follow.

Interview: Kaplan’s Executive Director of Pre-Medical Programs (1 of 2)

It’s not the first time Words on the Word has covered science and medicine (Organic Chemistry, anyone?). I have my wife to thank for the additional focus of the blog.

She’s taking an MCAT prep course through Kaplan Test Prep. You’ll hear more from her later about the course itself. I had the privilege not long ago of interviewing Eric Chiu, Kaplan’s Executive Director of Pre-Medical Programs.

Below is the first half of the interview. The second half will go into more detail as to the specific MCAT offerings available through Kaplan.



What level of importance does the MCAT have in the medical school admissions process?

If has a great deal of importance. However, the med school admissions process is holistic. Schools are looking to profile students to find the best candidates: not just ones who are well-qualified to enter their programs, but students who are going to be successful academically in their programs, as well as in residency and on the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination).

One reason why MCAT scores and GPA are important is that those two quantitative factors best predict performance in med school and board exams.

Eric Chiu, Executive Director of Pre-Medical Programs at Kaplan
Eric Chiu, Executive Director of Pre-Medical Programs at Kaplan

Last summer Kaplan administered a survey of 78 med school admissions offices, both MD and osteopathic programs. 40% of them named the MCAT as the largest application killer–the largest percentage of any response to that question. About 80% of them supported changes to the new test. And 68% thought the changes would better prepare students for med school.

The new test just launched–April 17–18. This is first application cycle where schools will be looking at both new and old MCAT scores. The reality is that this will be an interesting year in terms of admissions and how med schools look at new scores in particular.

The scoring field is completely different–there is new content knowledge, but also a different set of test skills. And there’s no conversion table from old to new scores. They are entirely different tests.

Schools will not have the same type of longitudinal mapping of new MCAT scores to school performance (i.e., USMLE scores, performance in third year of med school) for a few more years.

But there is a lot of confidence that the new test–and the preceding research that informed building it–takes into account an understanding of what skills would set students up for success. There’s been a concerted effort to make sure the new exam is an even better predictor of academic performance in med school. And it addresses more holistic things like behavioral sciences, which helps take into account issues of patient care and the movement for health care reform.


How much, on average, do the most successful test takers prepare? How many hours per week (and for how many months) do they study for the MCAT in a targeted way?

About 300 to 350 hours, all told, go into preparation. For students who are able to pace their prep and especially for Kaplan students in our course, we encourage them to start two to four months out from test date. Kaplan has courses scheduled that allow students to spread their preparation out for 10–14 or even 16 weeks.

We encourage students to begin studying even before their course begins. As soon as a student enrolls in a Kaplan MCAT course, they’ll get their books and online access, so they can start prepping months before their first scheduled class session. Therefore, we also encourage students to consider enrolling in their Kaplan course a month or two before the class sessions begin. Students can access courses in the online center and through the MCAT Channel. We recommend that they start attending live instruction via the MCAT Channel, especially for content review, even before they begin their course in earnest.


The books that come with the prep course (image via Kaplan)
The books that come with the prep course (image via Kaplan)


What makes Kaplan unique when compared to other MCAT prep courses?

We’re really excited about it, with the new exam and opportunity for reinvention. Unlike a lot of other companies, we did not think only of adding a few extra hours of content for the new course. We really used the test change as an opportunity to rethink and reinvent our entire approach to MCAT prep.

Our course is fundamentally based on two principles:

1. Not every student needs the same content review in their MCAT prep. All students need strategy and skills development for the exam, so in that sense we put our students through a similar path. But there’s a wide gap and wide range in terms of what students bring to MCAT preparation. Recognizing that, we allow students to find their most direct path to preparedness for the MCAT, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all approach. Our course offers the most content review available (via the MCAT Channel) on a schedule that makes sense for our students. They can invest time in the content areas that need the most help.

2. The course is designed to allow students to work as efficiently and flexibly as possible. Pre-med students are exceptionally busy. They are very active, have great aspiration, are hard workers, and can focus on lots of things at once. But they are still strung out on all the things they have to do to be better prepared for the application process and to build themselves into the types of people who will be great doctors some day. They are working at balancing school, life, work, research, volunteerism, clinical experience, and MCAT preparation.

Very few students can commit to MCAT preparation full-time. We allow our students to flexibly fit our course into their schedule.

And we’re the only company that offers the MCAT Channel. It makes available live instruction, six days a week: Monday through Thursday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as well as weekday summer afternoons. Students can log in to the channel if they need more help. This allows students to pinpoint where they need content review. We place our most expert (10 best, top-rated by others) instructors here. The MCAT Channel allows students to get questions answered in real time.

The Live Online courses also have additional instructors in the room, offering public chat answers and one-on-one interaction. This is really about designing flexible instruction to allow students to choose the right avenues for them, and then to fit it into their schedule as flexibly as possible.

Sessions are also available as recordings. This is all above and beyond the regularly scheduled course times. We make sure students get all the strategy they need for the 12 in-class sessions.

Kaplan has also built up a library of over 100 science review videos. These are short, concept-specific videos (7–15 minutes each), with the production value and expertise that Kaplan can bring. There is even interactivity with the videos–instructors actually pause several times during the video to do a concept check, which prompts students to interact with the material.


In the next part of the interview: which Kaplan course to consider, how Kaplan has adapted to the new MCAT, and strategies for studying.



Here’s Mr Chiu’s bio from Kaplan:

Eric Chiu is the executive director of pre-medical programs for Kaplan Test Prep, managing the company’s MCAT business, including marketing, program development, and delivery. A veteran Kaplan instructor, Eric has over a decade of experience teaching MCAT, LSAT, GRE, and GMAT preparatory courses and has presented to tens of thousands of students on topics related to test preparation and the admissions process. Eric has also overseen the development of Kaplan’s MCAT 2015 program, a revolutionary new approach to MCAT preparation, including the launch of a comprehensive Science Review video library and live, elective programming via the MCAT Channel. Eric holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Thanks to Mr. Chiu for the interview! And many thanks to Kaplan for giving us access to the Live Online MCAT Prep course for the purposes of offering an unbiased review. More to follow.

Review of Wiley’s Organic Chemistry (11th Edition)

This past school year my wife took a full-year Organic Chemistry class. For her textbook she used Organic Chemistry (11th edition) by T.W. Graham Solomons, Craig B. Fryhle, and Scott A. Snyder (Wiley, 2014). With gratitude to Wiley for the review copy, what follows is her assessment of the textbook.


The Approach of the Textbook


9781118133576.pdfOrganic Chemistry is divided into 25 chapters, covering the standard terrain like “Aldehydes and Ketones” (chapter 16), “Alcohols and Ethers” (chapter 11), and “Carboxylic Acids and Their Derivatives” (chapter 17).

It hits the core basics in the beginning and then goes through all the essential mechanisms. There’s even a chapter on NMR (chapter 9: “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Mass Spectometry”), in which the reader learns, among other things, about the chemistry behind an MRI.

The book’s product page says:

A central theme of the authors’ approach to organic chemistry is to emphasize the relationship between structure and reactivity. To accomplish this, the text is organized in a way that combines the most useful features of a functional group approach with one largely based on reaction mechanisms. Emphasizing mechanisms and their common aspects as often as possible, this book shows students what organic chemistry is, how it works, and what it does in living systems and the physical world around us.




Each chapter has explanations of concepts with Practice Problems and Solved Problems scattered throughout the reading. (Solved Problems essentially model what you are supposed to be doing in the Practice Problems.) At the end of each chapter, there is a summary of the chapter and more Problems, the answers to which are in the accompanying solutions manual and study guide, sold separately. (The textbook includes just an eight-page “Answers to Selected Problems” appendix.) The full solutions manual is essential for making your way through this textbook.

Solved Problem
Example of a Solved Problem

“A Mechanism for the Reaction” boxes appear throughout the book (beginning in chapter 3). These show

step-by-step details about how reactions take place so that students have the tools to understand rather than memorize organic reactions.

These boxes helped me really understand the mechanisms and do a lot better at solving the problems. The Table of Contents includes a listing of all the places they appear.

There is also a “Concept Map” at the end of a number of chapters, which shows how the concepts are connected and relate to each other. I found this to be an excellent study tool and aid to solidifying what I had read in the chapter. This is part of the “Summary and Review Tools” that the authors include in an attempt to “accommodate diverse learning styles.”

Organic Chem_Summary and Review Tools
End-of-Chapter Summary Section, Chapter 6 (Ionic Reactions)


New in the 11th Edition


In this 11th edition there is the addition of a section called “Why Do These Topics Matter?” This feature seeks to “show the rich relevance of what students have learned to applications that have direct bearing on our lives and wellbeing.” For example, in chapter 10, the authors note:

[T]here is a natural molecule that combines radical chemistry and molecular shape in a way that can cause cell death. Chemists have used this knowledge to fashion a few anticancer drugs.

Personally, I was so focused on the class itself that I found myself skipping over a lot of these. They’re well-done, though, and others may appreciate their inclusion. Students can, after all, have a hard time connecting organic chemistry to the “real world,” and it’s easy to get stuck in the details (“Its melting point changed!”) with little awareness of the concepts’ larger import. So I see why they took this approach; I think it’s a smart one.


What I Found Helpful


In a nutshell, here is what I found most useful about the book:

  • The graphics and drawings of molecules are conceptually clear and a good aid to learning.
  • The chapter on infrared spectroscopy is a good one–this is potentially itself a whole additional course.
  • The writing is straightforward and clear. As I read the book, I could tell it is a revision of a revision of a revision….
  • Organic Chemistry prepared me very well for taking the American Chemical Society standard exam.
  • It helped reinforce the lectures in the class.


Minor Points of Critique


The pictures at the beginnings of the chapters feel a little out of place. For example, chapter 10 (“Radical Reactions”) begins with a picture of a bowl of blueberries. Granted, this is present because blueberries are an example of an antioxidant, to be covered in that chapter, but some of these images don’t feel aesthetically consistent with the rest of what’s in the book. The graphics and overall design and layout are consistent and well-executed; it’s just that the photos (including the cover photograph) feel a bit off, compared with the rest of the book’s design. All told, however, this is a minor critique.

The binding appears to be glued (not sewn), which is unfortunate for a book of this magnitude. I didn’t carry it around that much (at over 1,000 pages, it’s heavy–to be expected), but it’s still in good shape after a year of use at home. There is an e-book option for those who are willing to be at as screen more often.

Concluding Evaluation

Organic Chemistry is a very solid teaching of the core concepts and mechanisms of organic chemistry. To professors who are considering a course text, this one is a worthy choice. To students who are considering (or have been assigned) this text, a book like this requires diligence to get through, but it will serve you well!
Find Organic Chemistry at Amazon here (affiliate link) and at Wiley’s site here.