Siri Alternatives for Android

Being an Android user I have to admit a little jealousy when I saw my iFriends playing with their new Siri voice assistant on their new iPhones. In case you have been sleeping under a rock, Siri is an app that was made available on the new Apple iPhone 4s. The app acts as a voice activated personal assistant. Here is a link if you would like to read more about it. That being said, I decided to go on a quest to find an Android alternative to Siri.

Before I dig into my little review here, let me first say a couple of things. This is not an end-all-be-all list of Siri alternatives, but rather a small list of ones that I have tried and found worth mentioning. I also want to say that I have the LG Optimus T, which is not the most cutting edge technology however, I really like it. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dig into the review.

My search for Siri alternatives began by searching the Android Market on my phone. I used a simple search term “Siri alternatives for Android”. I was blown away by how many of them came my way. Here are a few that I found noteworthy.

Iris

 

 

 

 

The first assistant I tried was one called Iris. Seemed like the natural one to start with as it is Siri spelled backwards. It was highly touted in the reviews. My initial reaction after installing it was that it was pretty clean looking. You can see a screenshot pictured below.

Iris
Courtesy Android Market

You basically had a black screen with a button at the bottom and the logo to the bottom right. You simply tap the button at the bottom and ask it a question. Of all the apps I tried, Iris interpreted what I said quicker and more accurately. Doing general searches for information was pretty easy with Iris. It seems to have a pretty extensive database on the back end and does a good job most of the time. However, there were times when I would ask a question and it would respond with something really off the wall. It also didn’t seem to integrate well with system type commands. For instance, I tried several different ways to get it to wake me up at a certain time and just didn’t want to go there. I was able to get it to send a text message for me but had trouble getting it to make a call.

Skyvi

Next comes Skyvi. Skyvi incorporates a technology called “Beacons”. For instance, you can program it notify you when you get near your pharmacy so you remember to pick up your medicine. I found that to be pretty unique and useful. See the screenshot below.

Skyvi
Courtesy Android Market

This one was pretty easy to use and attempts to be entertaining at times. One thing I like is that you can hit the little home button and it will give you some hints as to what you can do with it. I found it to be a little clunky though. It misinterpreted me quite a bit. I feel like this app has a lot of potential but they have a ways to go if they want to to be “better than Siri” as they claim they want to be in their description.

Speaktoit Assistant

Speaktoit Assistant was pretty fun I have to admit. First of all, you get to design the look of your assistant to your liking. She can have different color hair, skin, eyes, clothes, etc… You can even give her a better voice instead of that robotic Android voice. She will even smile at you! Though entertaining, it wasn’t quite as useful as I thought it could be. It did have some trouble with interpreting at times. Search queries didn’t go as well with this one either. “Where was George Washington born?” brought back the answer “I’m not exactly sure.” It was also the slowest to respond of all I tried. One positive I can say about it was that it was able to interact pretty well with my Facebook status updates. You can see an example screenshot pictured below.

Speaktoit
Courtesy Android Market

Vlingo

The last app I tried was Vlingo. Things didn’t start out so well with these guys. The first day I downloaded it I couldn’t get any responses. It had raving reviews on the market so I decided to give them a chance and contact customer support. To their credit, they contacted me pretty quickly and let me know that their network was down the day I tried. So I reinstalled the app and it worked pretty well. Vlingo’s database is pretty extensive, though if I were playing Trivial Pursuit I would still want Iris. The thing I liked the most about Vlingo was the “InCar” feature. You can see this pictured below. In this mode you can send messages and make calls without having to touch the phone at all. Just say “Hey Vlingo” and it responds to you. This feature works pretty well. This is a great alternative for people who like to hear their messages while on the go.

Vlingo
Courtesy Android Market

In conclusion, all of these apps have their strengths, but they also have glaring weaknesses. At this moment I couldn’t highly recommend any one of these over the other because they all have features that might be useful to different people. The short answer would be that all are worth trying. In doing so you might find one of them that suits your needs just fine. Just don’t expect any of them to blow Siri out of the water.

 

LSU Professor Discovers World’s Smallest Vertebrate

Louisiana State University’s Dr. Christopher C. Austin made an itsy-bitsy, yet monumental discovery. His team found two new species of frogs, one of which is the tiniest vertebrate known to man. The previous record had been held by a small Indonesian fish. The tiny discovery was made during a three month long excursion to the tropical island of Papua New Guinea. Though the discovery was made in 2009, the findings were recently published in the Journal PLoS One.

When I say itsy-bitsy I mean tiny enough to fit on the tip of your finger. The frogs belong to the genus Paedophryne, which sports the smallest frogs in the world. The smallest of the two they named Amauensis after Amau Village in the Central Province of New Guinea. The tiny polliwog has an average measurement of 7 millimeters long. You can see this little guy pictured below, sitting on a dime.

Amauesis
Paedophryne Amauensis sitting on a dime (Courtesy of PLoS One)

The second of the two newly discovered species they named Swiftorum after the Swift family who funded the Kamiali Biological Station where the species was found. It is only slightly larger than its record-breaking cousin with an average size of 8.5 millimeters. You can see Swiftorum pictured below, in his natural habitat.

Swiftorum
Swiftorum sitting in the wild. (Courtesy PLoS One)

Locating the frogs was not an easy task. Dr. Austin and graduate student Eric Rittmeyer, were intrigued by high pitched calls they were hearing on the forest floor. After several attempts to pinpoint the location of the sound, they decided to scoop up a bunch of leaf litter and bag it up. They then proceeded to search through the litter leaf by leaf until the tiny frog revealed itself. They were caught a little by surprise as they expected it to be an insect. Leaf litter on the forest floor provides essential moisture for these little guys to survive. It seems mini frogs have a tendency to dry out easily. According to the PLoS One publication, “this may explain the absence of diminutive frogs from temperate forests and tropical dry-forests, where the leaf litter is seasonally dry”.

This is a significant find because until recently, extreme sizes in nature were thought to be mostly supported in aquatic environments. For instance, the smallest known vertebrate before this discovery was a fish and the largest known is the blue whale. This led scientists to believe that extreme sizes were a result of buoyancy. Neither of these frogs live in water so this discovery challenges that notion.

For more information about Dr. Austin’s research, visit his laboratory page at the LSU Museum of Natural Science.

Google Doodle Honors Nicolas Steno

Today’s Google Doodle celebrates the 374th birthday of Nicolas Steno. This guy could have easily qualified as one of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” club members. He is perhaps best known as a pioneer of geology.

Google Doodle

His story’s beginning is rather tragic. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Copenhagen and  lived an isolated life due to an unknown disease. His father passed away when he was 6 years old. Shortly thereafter, 240 of his schoolmates died of the plague. It may have been his tumultuous childhood that inspired him to, basically, be a wanderer and literally travel the world to fulfill his curiosities.

Nicolas Steno (Courtesty Wikipedia)

It is nothing short of amazing to think of all that he achieved in his short life of 48 years. Throughout his travels through Europe, he met many prominent scientists who were a great influence on him. One thing that was unique about Steno was that he didn’t accept everything just because it was written in a book. He challenged the ancient philosophy and science of the day.

The Aha Moment

In 1665, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and supporter of the sciences, invited Steno to Florence with the express purpose of having him build a “Cabinet of Curiosities” for the duke. Seeing that a “Cabinet of Curiosities” is a collection of natural wonders, this was right up Steno’s alley. In 1666 some fishermen caught a huge shark and the Grand Duke ordered its head to be sent to Steno for dissection. It was in researching the shark’s teeth that he realized they bore a striking resemblance to embedded stones that were seen in rock formations called “tongue stones”. Many scientists of that day and preceding considered fossils to be a natural formation in rocks. Some even believed they fell here from other planets. Steno worked to prove that not only did these rock formation look like shark teeth but that they actually were.

This research led Steno to do more research into how solid objects became embedded into rock. His interest would lead him not only to why fossils were embedded, but also how minerals, crystals, and entire layers of rock became embedded in other rock. From this research he basically became the father of stratigraphy, the study of layers in rocks. He believed that the earth’s layers formed a chronology of different living creatures in different eras. His theories influenced the sciences of geology, paleontology, crystallography, and even formed the basis of many of Darwin’s theories of natural selection.

Religious Influence

His inquisitive mind influenced his religious beliefs, as well. He was raised as a Lutheran but was confronted with Catholicism while in Florence. In his mind, he reasoned that Catholicism “provided more sustenance for his constant inquisitiveness”. He was ordained a Priest at the age of 37 and became a strong figure in counter-reformation. Steno died while researching in Germany. In 1988 he was declared “beatus” by Pope John Paul II, which is the first step toward being declared a saint.

Reading about such a man and what he accomplished in a short amount of time causes me to reflect on my life and achievements. What was it about men of old that they were so accomplished in such a short amount of time? Maybe they weren’t as distracted by the things we are now. Perhaps they had a better grasp on the fragility of life and lived it more fully. Whatever the case, stories like this are worth being told and hopefully will inspire us to be better, ourselves.

Hubble Pinpoints Farthest Protocluster of Galaxies Ever Seen

NASA announced in a press release yesterday, that astronomers using Hubble’s wide field camera discovered a cluster of galaxies at the beginning stages of development. This is the farthest away that a cluster such as this has ever been observed in the early Universe.  Michele Trenti, of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, presented the results to the American Astronomical Society.

5 Galaxies
This composite image shows 5 bright galaxies clustered together nearly 13 billion light years away. (Courtesy NASA.GOV)

Early Cosmic Get-Together

Hubble was used to do a random sky survey when it came across these five small, but bright, galaxies clustered together in the farthest reaches of space. It is estimated that these galaxies were formed just 600 million years after the big bang. Clusters are the largest objects observed in our universe. They are usually comprised of hundreds of thousands of galaxies that are bound to each other by gravity. It’s sort of like a cosmic game of Pac-Man. These galaxies collide and swallow each other up to form larger galaxies. The galaxies observed in the image above are smaller than our own; however, they match ours in brightness.

“These galaxies formed during the earliest stages of galaxy assembly, when galaxies had just started to cluster together,” said  Trenti.  “The result confirms our theoretical understanding of the buildup of galaxy clusters. And, Hubble is just powerful enough to find the first examples of them at this distance.”

Long Distance Challenge

One of the biggest challenges is finding clusters bright enough to be seen 13 billion light-years away. Finding galaxy clusters this far back is challenging because they are so dim and scattered across the sky.  Trenti expressed the need to examine many different areas as she said, “the search is hit and miss. Typically, a region has nothing, but if we hit the right spot, we can find multiple galaxies.”

Because the systems were so dim, the astronomers honed in on the brightest galaxies. The brighter the galaxy, the more mass it has which, in turn, marks a spot where cluster construction is most likely to occur. Astronomers use computer simulations to determine the way that these clusters likely formed. It is likely that there are many other galaxies in the same region that are just too dim to see.  Based on the simulations, astronomers suspect that these bright galaxies form the central core of the cluster and will eventually form an elliptical giant similar to a closer cluster nearby, Virgo Cluster’s M87.

There is still some work to be done. The distances were measured based on color and the team will soon use spectroscopic observations, which measure the expansion of space. This will help astronomers precisely calculate the cluster’s distance and the velocity of the galaxies, which will show whether they are gravitationally bound to each other.

 

World’s Most Extreme Deep-Sea Vents Found

A team led by the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and the University of Southampton have discovered the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents boiling in the Cayman Trough, an undersea trench south of the Cayman Islands. The expedition uncovered a new species of  shrimp and may suggest that deep-sea vents are more widespread around the world than previously thought.

Black Smoker
Black Smoker at the BFV 5 Km Deep (Courtesy of Nature.com)

Dr. Jon Copley of the University of Southampton and Dr. Doug Connelly at the National Oceanography Centre used the National Oceanography Centre’s robot submarine, called Autosub6000 and a deep-diving vehicle, HyBIS, to reach the boiling depths of the Cayman Trough nearly 5 Kilometers below the surface. What they found were hydrothermal vents nearly a Kilometer deeper than anywhere else in the world. The vents may be hotter than 450 °C and are shooting a concoction of minerals more than a Kilometre into the ocean above. The team named the vent field the Beebe Vent Field (BVF) after the first scientist to venture into the deep ocean.

The researchers discovered a new species of shrimp which they named Rimicaris hybisae, after the deep-sea vessel they used to collect them. The shrimp are related to shrimp found at other vent sites along the Mid-Atlantic ridge. They are unique as they don’t have eyes, but rather a light-sensing organ on their backs to help them navigate around the vents. Pictured below, you can see a tightly woven bunch of shrimp surrounding a volcanic vent.

New Shrimp
A New Species of Shrimp Congregates on Volcanic Vent (Courtesy nature.com)

Even more surprising was the discovery of black smokers on the nearby Mount Dent. ““Finding black smoker vents on Mount Dent was a complete surprise,” says Connelly. “Hot and acidic vents have never been seen in an area like this before, and usually we don’t even look for vents in places like this.” Discovering these vents in this location could mean that volcanic vents are more prolific than once thought.

Relatively speaking, we haven’t known about hydrothermal vents very long. Since their discovery, more than 500 new species have been revealed and we have barely scratched the surface of the amount of vents waiting to be explored. This research gives us a much better understanding of the dispersal of fauna throughout the vent system and the evolution of the ocean.

For more information about this expedition see the following links:

You may also enjoy the following Techie Buzz article:

Caught on Film: Mimic Octopus Gets Mimicked by Jawfish

Charles Caleb Colton once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Some people like to mimic for entertainment, but animals do it for survival! The Mimic Octopus has long been known for its ability to transform its looks to protect itself from predators. However, Godehard Kopp, of the University of Gottingen in Germany, caught on film an unlikely partnership between a Mimic Octopus and a Black-Marble Jawfish. It appears that the Jawfish actually mimicked the Octopus as it changed colors.

Jawfish
Jawfish Mimics Octopus Banding (Courtesy Journal Coral Reefs)

The footage was taken on a dive in Indonesia. While it is not unusual to see the Mimic Octopus venture out under the guise of its own camouflage, seeing the Jawfish venture out was quite unusual. They are not very good swimmers and typically don’t venture out of the burrows they make in the sand. It appears that this one used “opportunistic mimicry” to transform its own colors to match that of the Octopus. This allowed the little guy to venture out, presumably to forage for food away from the confines of its burrow.

In the image below, notice how the Black-Marbled Jawfish makes itself appear to be a tentacle streaming from the Mimic Octopus. This is a great camouflage job because the Octopus is mimicking a deadly Lionfish pattern so that no predators will want to come its way.

Jawfish Mimic
Notice how the Jawfish looks like a tentacle.

Check out the video of the encounter below.

The ability that this Jawfish shows is unique and is not seen in its Japanese counterparts. For this reason, scientists believe this is opportunistic rather than obligate mimicry. A discovery like this shows how unique and diverse life can be in these coral reefs. Hopefully more can be done to protect this treasure.

For more information about this discovery, the original publication can be seen here.

Antarctic Deep-Sea Exploration Reveals Lost World

While space is often referred to as “the final frontier”, a grand and mysterious world awaits exploration in our own back yard. Scientists from the University of Oxford,University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre, and British Antarctic Survey have explored the nether regions of the Antarctic Ocean. What it revealed to them was a mysterious world teeming with life and may redefine our understanding of the biogeography of hydrothermal vents.

Hydrothermal Vents of East Scotia Ridge

Using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), scientists were able to explore the hydrothermal vents of the East Scotia Ridge (ESR). The vents were located in the extreme depths of the Antarctic Ocean. A map below shows the ridge location and it’s proximity to the other continents.

East Scotia Ridge
Map of the East Scotia Ridge (Courtesy PLoS Biology)

This expedition marks the first time that researchers were able to explore the depths of the ESR. Here they found hydrothermal vents called “black smokers”, like the one pictured below, which reach temperatures up to 382 degrees  Celsius.  The team reported their findings in this week’s  PLoS Biology.

Black Smoker Vent
An Example of the Black Smoker Vents Taken at the ESR Site (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)

Life in the Great Deep

Hydrothermal vents all over the world have proved to be a breeding ground for a variety of new fauna. The ESR site did not disappoint.

 The first survey of these particular vents, in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, has revealed a hot, dark, lost world’ in which whole communities of previously unknown marine organisms thrive’, said  Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology.

Rather than getting their energy from sunlight as most of the world we are familiar with, vent creatures gather energy from breaking down chemicals such as, hydrogen sulphide.  The following images highlight some of the wonderful discoveries that were made.

Unidentified Octopus
Unidentified Octopus (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)
Yeti Crab
A new species of Yeti Crab found at the ESR. (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)
Undescribed Seven Armed Predatory Star Fish
Undescribed Seven Armed Predatory Star Fish (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)

A Whole New World

Just as amazing as finding all of these new creatures, was the lack of other creatures familiar to hydrothermal vents across the globe. It was once thought the Antarctic region might have acted as a gateway connecting the vents of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. What turned out to be true was that this area is its own biological region.  Professor Rogers said, “Many animals such as tubeworms, vent mussels, vent crabs, and vent shrimps, found in hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, simply weren’t there.” Now they believe that vent systems may be more diverse globally and that the Antarctic Ocean may act as a barrier instead of a gateway between global vents.

These findings are yet more evidence of the precious diversity to be found throughout the world’s oceans,’ said Professor Rogers. Everywhere we look, whether it is in the sunlit coral reefs of tropical waters or these Antarctic vents shrouded in eternal darkness, we find unique ecosystems that we need to understand and protect.’

Such research is vital to our understanding of how these creatures are dispersed and prevents we humans from damaging the fragile environments of these creatures out of ignorance. It only goes to show how much there is still left to learn in our own world.

Track the Iowa 2012 Presidential Caucus with iPhone and Android Apps

Much to the dislike of many Americans, the 2012 Presidential campaign season rolls into full swing tonight with the advent of the Iowa 2012 Presidential caucus. For many of us, we have to endure seemingly endless political coverage and get to hear every bad thing these politicians have done since their childhood. However, for you political junkies out there, you’re in luck! There are now apps for both Android and Apple devices so you can track all the exciting news out of Iowa.

Iowa GOP Countdown Clock

The first app I would like to tell you about comes from the Iowa Republican party. Not that I want to put a political slant on this article, but rather the Republican party is pretty much the only real news that will come out of the Iowa caucuses because the Democratic party only has one candidate, President Obama. The App is called “IowaGOP2012″ and is designed by Victory Enterprises. According to the description at the Apple store the app will “explain the history and the process of the caucus, let you find your caucus location, and provide easy to use ways to contact Iowa GOP staff, Iowa Elected officials, and Caucus Candidates. You can see a screenshot of the app pictured below. It looks very much like the Iowa GOP website. You can download the Android app here and the Apple app here.

Iowa GOP 2012

If you would like a more objective view of the caucus, then you might want to consider Gannett’s “Iowa Caucuses” app. It appears to only be available via iTunes. It is developed by The Des Moines Register. According to their description the app will:

★ Find all of The Des Moines Register caucus coverage or filter by your choice of candidates.
★ Get live results on caucus night on Jan. 3.
★ Add a candidate event to your calendar simply by tapping the date and time listed in the event.
★ Get directions to an event by tapping the map.
★ Share stories, videos and candidate information on Twitter, Facebook and more.
★ Download the content once and read offline.
★ Push notifications.

Below you can see a screenshot of the app on the iPhone. You can download the Apple app from the iTunes app store here.

The Des Moines Register App

Iowa is the first U.S. state to cast votes toward presidential candidates. They take great pride in being “First in the Nation”. The Iowa caucus is a very different process than primaries that are held in many other states. ABC news has an interesting video which explains the process.

Hopefully you political junkies out there will find these apps useful and they will help you get your political “fix”. If you would like to watch the countdown to all the action, go to iowagop.org and enjoy their countdown clock on the front page of their website.

Ring In the New Year with Official Times Square Ball App

Millions of us around the globe will be celebrating the onset of a new year tonight. Now, there is an app for that! You can be a part of all the excitement of Times Square with the “Official Times Square Ball App”. It is available in both iTunes and Android markets.

You can see a screenshot of the main screen pictured below. The app lets you enjoy all of the action of the live show including all of the celebrity cameos and live music.

Main Screen
Courtesy of iTunes App Store

There’s a lot more too. Check out this list courtesy of the Android Market:

* Participate in the celebration by submitting your New Year’s photo for friends, family and other revelers to vote on.

* Their favorites may be selected to be seen on the Toshiba Vision sign atop One Times Square directly beneath the Waterford Crystal New Year’s Eve Ball on December 31st! The selected photos will also be featured on the LIVE Show.

* Discover everything you need to know about the Times Square New Year’s Eve Celebration including the history, news, weather, photos, relevant maps and LIVE Show schedule.

* Send New Year’s Eve kisses and share photos with friends and family.

* Watch live streaming of the events in Times Square leading up to New Year’s Eve throughout December as well as the highlight promo and other exclusive video content.

* Customize your Toshiba Countdown Clock with your personal photo and time zone.

* Check-in via Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter to find out how far away you are from Times Square.

Sounds like a lot of fun! Here is a YouTube video if you would like to get a closer look.

I had the pleasure several years ago, to tour the Waterford Crystal plant where the Times Square Ball is made. They actually had a replica of the ball there for us to see up close. It is incredible to see the skill and craftsmanship that goes into it. I wish someday I will get the opportunity to see the ball drop from Times Square. Until then, I will have to enjoy apps like this.

It has been a wild ride for me this year. I wish for you and yours all the best and a Happy New Year!!!!

Low Trans Fat Diet Equals Better Brain Function in Elderly

An article by Joseph Brownstein  on Live Science, reports a new study indicates that living a low trans fat lifestyle leads to better brain health in the elderly. “Older people with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B, C, D, and E in their blood do better on cognitive tests than those with lower levels”, according to the study. Not only that, the study also found that high levels of trans fats actually hurt cognition.

Rubens Study of an Old Man
Rubens Study of an Old Man Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Gene Bowman, an assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Science University, headed up the study. It involved 104 people with the average age of 87. The study was a follow up to a former study to address the problem of people not remembering what they ate. Drawing blood allows for scientists to measure the dietary intake of people and eliminates common mistakes people make when filling out questionnaires . The study was meant to discover the role diet plays in the aging brain.

Feeding the Brain

Recent research is starting to show that there is a definite correlation between brain function and what we eat. Trans fats have been the target of scrutiny among heart researchers and now Bowman believes, “it’s not too much of stretch to think that they’re bad for the brain”. Not only did the presence of trans fats hurt cognitive function, but researchers found a correlation between trans fats and brain shrinkage. If the findings of this study are confirmed, this may give doctors another tool to determine whether patients may need to supplement their diets to decrease the chances of cognitive decline.

Sources of Trans Fats

Trans fats were once thought to be a good thing. They increased the shelf life of many products and addressed the shortage of butterfats in the early 1900’s. It didn’t take long before the negative affects of trans fats were seen. According to Wikipedia, studies were showing the negative affects on coronary artery disease as early as 1956.  Trans fats are dangerous because they raise “LDL” (bad cholesterol levels) in the blood. Not only that, they also lower “HDL” (good cholesterol) in the blood. As of January 2006, the FDA requires all food labels to list trans fats.

WebMD lists these food types on their website as potential sources of trans fat:

  • cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and breads such as hamburger buns
  • some stick margarine and vegetable shortening
  • pre-mixed cake mixes, pancake mixes, and chocolate drink mixes
  • fried foods, including donuts, French fries, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
  • snack foods, including chips, candy, and packaged or microwave popcorn
  • frozen dinners
In conclusion, this study barely scratches the surface of the affects of trans fats in brain aging and is not without criticism. For instance, one critic states that the study was done mostly on well educated white people. There is a call for a more diverse population to be studied. It does however, seem to fit in with recent research that diet has a definite affect on cognitive function in the aging brain.