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Review: Sony’s smartwatch good, but not essential

Sony’s SmartWatch 2 in a variety of colors. Photo: AP/Sony

Sony's new SmartWatch 2 doesn't get as much attention - and doesn't do as much - as Samsung's Galaxy Gear computerized wristwatch. But for the things it does, Sony's version performs better.
The SmartWatch 2 is also 33 percent cheaper, at about $200, and works with a variety of
Android phones, not just Sony's. Samsung's Galaxy Gear sells for $300 and is compatible only with a handful of high-end Samsung phones.

That said, neither company has made a compelling case of why people need a smartwatch this holiday season.

These wrist-bound gadgets are supposed to free you from constantly pulling out your phone to check for messages. But I found myself checking the watch more often than I would pull out a phone. That proved more distracting - and less private - over dinner, for instance.

The SmartWatch 2 is worth considering primarily if you want to be among the first with the latest technology.

What Sony's watch does:

Think of the watch as a companion to your phone. The phone needs to be within Bluetooth wireless range, or about 30 feet.

You install a free Smart Connect app on the phone to manage what gets sent to the watch, be it messages or call notifications. You give the watch functionality by

adding watch apps to Smart Connect one by one. Smart Connect fetches the watch apps from Google's online Play store.

For example, I installed Sony's Messaging app to get texts on the watch. I get full texts and can reply with emoticons or pre-written responses such as "I'll get back to you." There's no keyboard on the watch to type individual replies, given that its screen measures just 1.6 inches diagonally.

The Facebook watch app lets me check the latest posts and endorse some with "likes" right from the watch. With Twitter, I can read the latest updates, retweet them or mark some as favorites. But I'm limited to text on the watch. I can't access photos and other links that are often embedded into tweets.

Getting too much? Through the phone, I can choose specific friends and accounts to get notifications for, though I can't simply add "family" and other groups I had already created on Facebook.

The watch can act as a remote control for your phone, but calls themselves are made through the phone. For the watch to be useful, you need a Bluetooth wireless headset linked to the phone.

When calls come in, you can reject the call, with or without a canned text reply. If you have a Sony phone, you can answer calls from the watch as well. With any phone running at least Android 4.0, you can initiate calls from the watch using its dialpad or your Android contacts list. But again, the calls go through your phone. You can control volume, but it took me a while to figure out how.

There are nearly 250 other apps you can add, many coming from outside app developers.

I particularly like a 99-cent app called Fake Call. Tap on the watch to make your phone ring with a phantom call. Use that to get you out of whatever sketchy situation you might find yourself in.

A free app called GPS Maps sends a map to your watch with surrounding blocks. The map moves as you move, though I don't get directions.

How it compares with Samsung's device:

Samsung's Galaxy Gear wins on style: The watch has a metal frame and straps in six colors. It can work as a fashion accessory, at least for men. It's on the larger

side, with a 1.6-inch screen matching Sony's. The SmartWatch 2 from Sony feels cheap, by comparison, though the straps are replaceable with other 24-millimeter watch straps if you're really buying this for fashion.

The Gear also wins on features: Sony's watch doesn't have a speaker or a microphone. It doesn't have a camera. The Gear has all that, which means you can make phone calls through the watch itself, without a Bluetooth headset. The camera produces low-resolution images, but it beats missing the shot because your phone is in the pocket.

But I don't believe these features are worth an extra $100. The speakerphone doesn't offer much privacy or work well in noisy environments. The speaker allows you to reply to text messages using voice dictation, but the transcriptions are slow and error-prone.

Where the SmartWatch 2 outperforms the Gear is in delivering messages.

The Gear gives you full texts, but that's about it. Get a Facebook or Gmail notification? You have to return to the phone to read the message. The watch is supposed to reduce the need to pull out your phone, but not if you keep getting notifications urging you to check.

And while I got about 2.5 days on the SmartWatch 2 on a single charge, the Gear dies in a day. You can charge Sony's watch with a standard micro-USB charger, while the Gear needs its own. The Gear's watch face also goes dark so it could last just a day. With Sony's watch, you can see the time even in a low-power mode.

Sony's SmartWatch 2 also has many more apps to choose from - more than three times as many.

Do you need it?

Maybe one day, smartwatches will truly be smart. They need to be better at filtering the important notifications from the noise, and they need to do more than tell you to go back to the phone to complete a task.

For now, we're in an era of experimentation. Sony's SmartWatch 2 advances the field with a just-the-basics smartwatch, but I'll wait at least a year or two for even more advances before buying one myself.

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Nature pulls a fast one on astronomers: Two galaxies caught masquerading as one

Nov. 15, 2013 — What might look like a colossal jet shooting away from a galaxy turns out to be an illusion. New data from the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) reveal that two galaxies, one lying behind the other, have been masquerading as one.

In a new image highlighting the chance alignment, radio data from the VLA are blue and infrared observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) are yellow and orange, respectively. Visible data are also shown, with starlight in purplish blue and heated gas in rose.

The closer galaxy, called UGC 10288, is located 100 million light-years away. It is spiral in shape, but from our viewpoint on Earth, we are seeing its thin edge. The farther galaxy, seen in blue, is nearly 7 billion light-years away. Two giant jets shoot away from this galaxy, one of which is seen above the plane of the closer galaxy's disk.

Earlier radio images of the two galaxies appeared as one fuzzy blob, and fooled astronomers into thinking they were looking at one galaxy. Thanks to the VLA pulling the curtain back on the disguised duo, the scientists have a unique opportunity to learn otherwise-unobtainable facts about the nearer galaxy.

"We can use the radio waves from the background galaxy, coming through the nearer one, as a way to measure the properties of the nearer galaxy," said Judith Irwin, of Queen's University, Canada, lead author of a recent paper on the findings, appearing online Nov. 15 in the Astronomical Journal.

Observations from Spitzer and WISE helped to reveal new structures above and below the plane of the closer galaxy's disk. For example, Spitzer helped confirm an arc-like feature rising more than 11,000 light-years above the disk, which was seen in the radio observations.

Irwin worked with an international team of astronomers from North America, India and Europe who are part of the "Continuum Halos in Nearby Galaxies -- an EVLA Survey" (CHANG-ES) consortium.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit http://spitzer.caltech.edu and http://www.nasa.gov/spitzer .

JPL manages and operates the WISE mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. More information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/wise and http://wise.astro.ucla.edu and http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/wise .

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You’re Invited: #GirlsTravel Twitter Chat & VAIO® Duo 13 Giveaway

Ladies, this one’s for you. (Sorry, dudes!)

On Monday, Nov. 18, we’ll be a guest host of the #GirlsTravel chat, the one and only travel-themed Twitter chat exclusively for women.

From 10-10:30 a.m. PT, we’ll be talking about travel gadgets that make it easier to stay connected and to share your adventures while you’re abroad.

It’s a short, fast-moving chat, and at the very end, we’re giving away a VAIO® Duo 13 PC to one #girlstravel Twitter chat participant! It’s the perfect device to take with you while you gallivant from one destination to the next.

vaioduo13

Here’s why the VAIO Duo 13 rocks:

  • It can be used in tablet or laptop modes with the Surf Slider® design
  • It’s got up to 10 hours of battery life for all day mobility
  • It’s only 2.93 lbs – light and portable!
  • It resumes from sleep in less than a second
  • The 13.3” Full HD 1920 x 1080p touchscreen LCD with TRILUMINOS Display creates true, natural shades of colors

To join in, block off your calendars between 10-10:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 18, and follow the #girlstravel hashtag on Twitter. Chime in, get to know and chat with other participants, and have a great time! To make it easier to follow the conversation, you can also head over to http://www.tweetchat.com and follow #girlstravel.

We are so excited to join the #GirlsTravel chat next week and we hope to chat with you!

In the meantime, meet your hosts:

@adlibtraveller

@mrsoaroundworld

@travlin_girl

@jettingaround

@maiden_voyage

@turnipseeds

@travelgogirl

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No peak in sight for evolving bacteria

Nov. 14, 2013 — There's no peak in sight ­- fitness peak, that is -- for the bacteria in Richard Lenski's Michigan State University lab.

Lenski, MSU Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, has been running his evolutionary bacteria experiment for 25 years, generating more than 50,000 generations. In a paper published in the current issue of Science, Michael Wiser, lead author and MSU graduate student in Lenski's lab, compares it to hiking.

"When hiking, it's easy to start climbing toward what seems to be a peak, only to discover that the real peak is far off in the distance," Wiser said. "Now imagine you've been climbing for 25 years, and you're still nowhere near the peak."

Only the peaks aren't mountains. They are what biologists call fitness peaks -- when a population finds just the right set of mutations, so it can't get any better. Any new mutation that comes along will send things downhill.

The bacteria in Lenski's lab are still becoming more fit even after a quarter century, living in the same, simple environment.

Biologists have known that organisms keep evolving if the environment keeps changing, but they've previously thought that adaptation would eventually grind to a halt if the environment stayed constant for a long time.

Wiser pulled hundreds of samples from the deep freezer that contains a frozen fossil record -- bacteria all the way back to generation 0 in Lenski's 25-year experiment. And these fossils, unlike dinosaurs, are alive. So they can be competed against samples from different generations to measure the trajectory -- the path -- of the bacteria as they climbed for 50,000 generations toward the fitness peaks.

"There doesn't seem to be any end in sight," Lenski said. "We used to think the bacteria's fitness was leveling off, but now we see it's slowing down but not really leveling off."

Wiser found that the trajectories matched a type of mathematical function called a power law. Although the slope of the power-law function gets less and less steep over time, it never reaches a peak.

Noah Ribeck, co-author and MSU postdoctoral researcher, built a model using a few well-understood principles.

"It was surprising to me that a simple theory can describe the entirety of a long evolutionary trajectory that includes initially fast and furious adaptation that later slowed to a crawl," Ribeck said. "It's encouraging that despite all the complications inherent to biological systems, they are governed by general principles that can be described quantitatively."

When will it end?

"I call this the experiment that keeps on giving," Lenski said. "Even after 25 years, it's still generating new and exciting discoveries. From the models, we can predict how things will evolve -- how fit the bacteria will become -- if future generations of scientists continue the experiment long after I'm gone."

Lenski hopes that an endowment could be secured to keep the experiment going forever, he added.

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Dogs likely originated in Europe more than 18,000 years ago, biologists report

Nov. 14, 2013 — Wolves likely were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers more than 18,000 years ago and gradually evolved into dogs that became household pets, UCLA life scientists report.

"We found that instead of recent wolves being closest to domestic dogs, ancient European wolves were directly related to them," said Robert Wayne, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in UCLA's College of Letters and Science and senior author of the research. "This brings the genetic record into agreement with the archaeological record. Europe is where the oldest dogs are found."

The UCLA researchers' genetic analysis is published Nov. 15 in the journal Science and featured on the journal's cover.

In related research last May, Wayne and his colleagues reported at the Biology of Genomes meeting in New York the results of their comparison of the complete nuclear genomes of three recent wolf breeds (from the Middle East, East Asia and Europe), two ancient dog breeds and the boxer dog breed.

"We analyzed those six genomes with cutting-edge approaches and found that none of those wolf populations seemed to be closest to domestic dogs," Wayne said. "We thought one of them would be, because they represent wolves from the three possible centers of dog domestication, but none was. All the wolves formed their own group, and all the dogs formed another group."

The UCLA biologists also hypothesized at that conference that a now-extinct population of wolves was more directly related to dogs.

For the current study in Science, the researchers studied 10 ancient "wolf-like" animals and eight "dog-like" animals, mostly from Europe. These animals were all more than 1,000 years old, most were thousands of years old, and two were more than 30,000 years old.

The biologists studied the mitochondrial DNA of the animals, which is abundant in ancient remains. (Mitochondria are tiny sub-cellular structures with their own small genome.) By comparing this ancient mitochondrial DNA with the modern mitochondrial genomes of 77 domestic dogs, 49 wolves and four coyotes, the researchers determined that the domestic dogs were genetically grouped with ancient wolves or dogs from Europe -- not with wolves found anywhere else in the world or even with modern European wolves. Dogs, they concluded, derived from ancient wolves that inhabited Europe and are now extinct.

Wayne said that that the domestication of predatory wolves likely occurred among ancient hunter-gatherer groups rather than as part of humans' development of sedentary, agricultural-based communities.

"The wolf is the first domesticated species and the only large carnivore humans ever domesticated," Wayne said. "This always seemed odd to me. Other wild species were domesticated in association with the development of agriculture and then needed to exist in close proximity to humans. This would be a difficult position for a large, aggressive predator. But if domestication occurred in association with hunter-gatherers, one can imagine wolves first taking advantage of the carcasses that humans left behind -- a natural role for any large carnivore -- and then over time moving more closely into the human niche through a co-evolutionary process."

The idea of wolves following hunter-gatherers also helps to explain the eventual genetic divergence that led to the appearance of dogs, he said. Wolves following the migratory patterns of these early human groups would have given up their territoriality and would have been less likely to reproduce with resident territorial wolves. Wayne noted that a group of modern wolves illustrates this process.

"We have an analog of this process today, in the only migratory population of wolves known existing in the tundra and boreal forest of North America," he said. "This population follows the barren-ground caribou during their thousand-kilometer migration. When these wolves return from the tundra to the boreal forest during the winter, they do not reproduce with resident wolves there that never migrate. We feel this is a model for domestication and the reproductive divergence of the earliest dogs from wild wolves.

"We know also that there were distinct wolf populations existing ten of thousands of years ago," Wayne added. "One such wolf, which we call the megafaunal wolf, preyed on large game such as horses, bison and perhaps very young mammoths. Isotope data show that they ate these species, and the dog may have been derived from a wolf similar to these ancient wolves in the late Pleistocene of Europe."

In research published in the journal nature in 2010, Wayne and colleagues reported that dogs seem to share more genetic similarity with living Middle Eastern gray wolves than with any other wolf population, which suggested a Middle East origin for modern dogs. The new genetic data have convinced him otherwise.

"When we previously found some similarity between Middle Eastern wolves and domestic dogs, that similarity, we are now able to show, likely was the result of interbreeding between dog and wolves during dog history. It does not necessarily suggest an origin in the Middle East," Wayne said. "This alternative hypothesis, in retrospect, is one that we should have considered more closely. As hunter-gatherers moved around the globe, their dogs trailing behind probably interbred with wolves."

Wayne considers the new genetic data "persuasive" but said they need to be confirmed with an analysis of genetic sequences from the nucleus of the cell (roughly 2 billion base pairs) -- a significantly larger sample than that found in mitochondrial DNA (approximately 20,000 base pairs). This is challenging because the nuclear DNA of ancient remains tends to become degraded.

While Wayne plans to pursue this follow-up research, he said he does not expect a nuclear genome analysis to change the central finding. However, he said, it will fill in more of the details.

"This is not the end-story in the debate about dog domestication, but I think it is a powerful argument opposing other hypotheses of origin," he said.

There is a scientific debate over when dogs were domesticated and whether it was linked with the development of agriculture fewer than 10,000 years ago, or whether it occurred much earlier. In the new Science research, Wayne and his colleagues estimate that dogs were domesticated between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago.

The research was federally funded by the National Science Foundation.

Co-authors on the Science paper include Olaf Thalmann, a former postdoctoral scholar in Wayne's laboratory who is currently the Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Finland's University of Turku; Daniel Greenfield, a former technician in Wayne's laboratory; Francesc López-Giráldez, a former graduate student in Wayne's laboratory who is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Yale University; Adam Freedman, a former postdoctoral scholar in Wayne's laboratory; Rena Schweizer, a current UCLA graduate student in Wayne's laboratory; Klaus Koepfli, a former postdoctoral scholar in Wayne's laboratory; and Jennifer Leonard, who earned her doctorate from UCLA.

Approximately 80 percent of dog breeds are modern breeds that evolved in the last few hundred years, Wayne said. But some dog breeds have ancient histories that go back thousands of years.

Wolves have been in the Old World for hundreds of thousands of years. The oldest dogs from the archaeological record come from Europe and Western Russia. A dog from Belgium dates back approximately 36,000 years, and a group of dogs from Western Russia is approximately 15,000 years old, Wayne said.

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Street View floats into Venice

Venice was once described as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man,” and from these pictures it’s hard to disagree. You can now explore panoramic imagery of one of the most romantic spots in the world, captured with our Street View Trekker technology.

It was impossible for us to collect images of Venice with a Street View car or trike—blame the picturesque canals and narrow cobbled walkways—but our team of backpackers took to the streets to give Google Maps a truly Shakespearean backdrop. And not just the streets—we also loaded the Trekker onto a boat and floated by the famous gondolas to give you the best experience of Venice short of being there.

Our Trekker operator taking a well-earned rest while the gondolier does the hard work

The beautiful Piazza San Marco, where you can discover Doge's Palace, St. Marks' Cathedral, the bell tower, the Marciana National Library and the clocktower

We covered a lot of ground—about 265 miles on foot and 114 miles by boat—capturing not only iconic landmarks but several hidden gems, such as the Synagogue of the first Jewish Ghetto, the Devil’s Bridge in Torcello island, a mask to scare the same Devil off the church of Santa Maria Formosa and the place where the typographer Manutius created the Italics font. Unfortunately, Street View can’t serve you a cicchetto (local appetizer) in a classic bacaro (a typical Venetian bar), though we can show you how to get there.
The Devil’s Bridge in Torcello Island

Once you’ve explored the city streets of today, you can immerse yourself in the beauty of Venice’s past by diving deep in to the artworks of the Museo Correr, which has joined the Google Cultural Institute along with Museo del Vetro and Ca’ Pesaro - International Gallery of Modern Art.
Click on a pin under "Take a tour" to compare the modern streets with paintings of the same spots by artists such as Carpaccio and Cesare Vecellio

Or delve into historical maps of Venice, like this one showing the Frari Church, built in 1396


Finally, take a look behind the scenes showing how we captured our Street View imagery in Venice.

The Floating City is steeped in culture; it’s easy to see why it’s retained a unique fascination and romance for artists, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights and pilgrims through the centuries—and now, we hope, for Street View tourists too.

Posted by Daniele Rizzetto, Street View Operations Manager (and proud Venetian!)

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A new look for the Gmail app on iPad

Posted by Carmen Wilkinson, Gmail Software Engineer

(Cross-posted on the Gmail blog.)

Tablets are great because the large screen not only gives you a more immersive experience but also extra room for serious multitasking. And with today’s update to the Gmail iOS app, you’ll be able to do even more with your iPad.

If you hold your iPad in landscape mode, you’ll immediately notice the new left hand navigation bar, which allows you to quickly switch between multiple accounts, or between inbox categories, with a single tap. To help you get through your email faster, you’ll also see a new message counter for each category.
For those preferring a more focused immersive experience, hold your iPad in portrait mode to get a full screen view of individual messages.
In addition to improvements to scrolling performance, there’ll also be extra room to compose your messages in full screen.
Lastly you’ll notice several iOS 7 visual updates on both iPad and iPhone. You can download the app right now from the App Store.