Sunday, May 15, 2011

Science Education: Summer Science Programs in Forensics

It is that time of year again for students and parents - time for signing students up for summer camps!

The South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Mathematics (USA) runs its Summer Science Programs (SSP) every summer. SSP is a residential summer camp for rising 8th, 9th and 10th graders. Both in-state and out-of-state students are accepted.

As usual, I'll be teaching two, one-week runnings of my course, Applied Forensic Science (formerly: A Mathematical Tour of Forensic Science), again this year.  In addition, Dr. Sid Parrish will be teaching his ever popular CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) course.  For those who, for some unimaginable reason, might want to take courses in subjects unrelated to forensics, there are a large number of offerings (Lego Robotics, Great Experiments in Classical Physics, and more).  If you are interested, you can find out more on their website. I hope to see you there!

Human Auditory System: Musical training helps students and the elderly alike

Northwestern researchers Alexandra Parbery-Clark, Dana Strait, Samira Anderson, Emily Hittner and Nina Kraus have published a journal article that extends the work being done into advantages that students get from musical training and experience to the elderly.  Their work seems to show that life-long musical training improves memory and the ability to understand speech in noisy environments.  This makes sense, intuitively. After all, the human auditory system, like the human visual system, relies upon extracting and matching patterns to do its job and the more practice it gets the better job it can do!


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Education: US Department of State Scholarships for Needed Foreign Languages

The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program offered by the US Government's Department of State offers merit-based scholarships to US high school students to study particularly needed languages (i.e. Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Korean, Persian, and Turkish). Applicants who successfully make it through the selection process will be sent abroad for either six-week or one semester long programs.  All program related costs (e.g. travel, room, and board) are paid for by the scholarship.  More details can be found on their website (link).

(Hat Tip: Government Video)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Human Speech System: North American English Dialects

I don't even know this gentleman, but I confess that I have to like him just based on his introduction to this excellent website:
This is just a little hobby of mine, that I thought might be interesting to a lot of people. Some people collect stamps. Others collect coins. I collect dialects. Please let me know what you think of this page. - Rick Aschmann 
See what I mean?

Mr. Aschmann has put together a collection of North American accents based on pronunciation.  It is fascinating...

His work reminds me of an incident from many years ago, back during the Cold War. I was attending a dinner party at a US Embassy and was unexpectedly, but playfully, escorted to stand in front of a young woman who was with an Italian film company.  I was asked by the onlookers to say just a few words in a sentence and to stop. Once I had done so, everyone turned to look expectantly at the young woman, who, after a pregnant pause, said something along the lines of "hmmm.... American" (which brought groans from the onlookers), "south eastern" (yielding just a few groans), "South Carolina" (serious looks), "Darlington County" (at my nod of affirmation, this led to gasps and dropped jaws).  It turned out that she was the speech consultant to the film and her credits included coaching Mel Gibson (the Aussie from the Mad Max and other mainstream film series) and the New York African-Americans who needed to sound like Southerners in the movie "The Color Purple".


(Hat tip: The Economist, center left, UK, news magazine)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Forensic Audio: An Introduction

A colleague and former student of mine, Detective Phil Manchester (UK), wrote an excellent article earlier this year titled "An Introduction to Forensic Audio".  It appeared in the British audiophile magazine Sound on Sound.  I highly recommend reading this short overview of audio forensics.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Crime Scene Investigation: Photographic Portfolio

A former forensic crime lab technician turned professional photographer named Angela Strassheim has used her fascination with crime scenes to create a photographic portfolio.  For the portfolio, she visited dozens of former crime scenes and photographed them using a combination of low light, long exposure times, black and white film, and a chemical reagent used to highlight blood stains.  The results are fascinating and you can see them here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Music: The Humanthesizer

What can a group of engineers and a musician do with a computer, a sound card, a bunch of dancers, a singer, and a bucket of conductive paint? Create the Humanthesizer!

A bit of fun for a Monday morning - enjoy!

PS. I recommend watching "The making of..." clip first and then the actual performance.
PPS. A "boffin" is a scientist/engineer in British slang.

(Hat tip - Thanks Robert C!)

Audio Forensics: Voice Risk Analysis Fails Practical Trial

Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) has always been viewed skeptically by many in the speech field. This technique takes Voice Stress Analysis - i.e. analyzing speech for microtremors and possibly other indicators of nervousness, anxiety, and general stress - and applies it to a real world problem. As far as the science of strict voice stress analysis goes, it is believable to me based on my own observations. I have seen that many people can exhibit audible stress in their voices when under emotional or physical stress.  As an experiment, try listening to someone on the phone when they are climbing a set of stairs rapidly and you should notice a difference!

Voice Risk Analysis takes this concept and extends it to the automated detection of deception (lying) over telephone calls.  Is this completely unbelievable on the face of it? Not completely - you may have occasionally encountered people who sound nervous when trying to lie.  However, pricey products have been sold based on extrapolating this a step further to claim that simply by analyzing telephone speech to a finer level of detail (e.g. looking for microtremors) one can detect stress and even lying in the general population.

The Guardian (a center-left news organization in the UK) has a news article on the results of practical trials conducted by the British government using a commercial VRA system to attempt to catch people lying in telephone interviews regarding government-funded benefits. After analyzing the results from 45,000 calls, the bottom line was that the system did not provide enough value to justify its cost.  Given the history of VRA and my own understanding of speech science, I am not surprised at all by the findings.  Hopefully, as a matter of public policy, this will put an end to government purchases of VRA technology until such a time as it is proven by peer-reviewed studies to work for the application(s) it is intended for.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Photography: Preserving old photos and documents

One of my favorite websites, lifehacker, has an article based around material by Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, the electronic archivist for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, on how to best preserve old photographs and other documents. This topic is very important for forensic examiners and the legal system in general as, at least in the USA, we have to preserve evidence for at least 25 years in case there is ever a re-trial.

For information about the long term care and handling of DVDs and CDs, I highly recommend the National Institute of Science and Technologies guide to the subject, available in PDF format (size = 1.24MB) at the following link.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Forensic Education: Upcoming Audio Forensics Workshop

I would like to pass along the following announcement:

The National Center for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado Denver will be holding an Audio Forensics Workshop December 13-15, 2010 in Denver, CO.  This course is an introduction to digital audio, acoustics, audio evidence admissibility, and recorded speech enhancement.  It is the perfect experience for those new to the field, practitioners needing to review forensic audio theory and practice, or those accustomed to working with other types of digital and multimedia evidence.  Course topics include:
·       Introduction to Media Forensics
-        Overview and principles in Media Forensics
-        Admissibility of audio evidence
·       Foundations for Forensic Audio Enhancement
-        Sound and acoustics
-        Audio recording and playback
-        Digitization of sound
-        Signal processing and enhancement algorithms

·       Demonstration and Practice
-        Digital evidence seizure and acquisition
-        Enhancement practice
-        Notes and report writing
-        Preparation of enhanced material
The course will be co-taught by Dr. Catalin Grigoras and Jeff M. Smith.  The cost for this class is $850 and graduate level university credit will be given upon completion.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Human Visual System: Gene identified that causes short sightedness

The BBC (center-left news, United Kingdom) reports on research at King's College London that has tentatively identified a gene that causes myopia, commonly known as short-sightedness.  For those who confuse short and long sightedness, just remember that they are what their names say - you see objects better at short distances when short-sighted and you see objects better at long distances when long-sighted.  The article is well written and has graphics to explain the condition.

Human Speech System: Woman's migraine causes French accent

A woman in the United Kingdom is suffering from Foreign Accent Syndrome - a rare condition caused by damage to the brain that results in changes to a person's accent. In this case, the woman went from a British accent to a French one.  The Guardian (UK, left-wing newspaper) has the story.  Fascinating.

Image Forensics: Bad "Photoshopped" Mad Men cover on Rolling Stones

The title of this post says it all - the writers at Jezebel (a celebrity news for women) wrote about it first. See for yourself.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Linguistics: Challenge Puzzles

Here is a fun website with lots of puzzles - from easy to hard - involving linguistics.  Enjoy!

(Hat Tip:, USA, technology news)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Human Speech System: Test your lip-reading ability

Speech scientists have long known that seeing individuals can, even unconsciously, use lip-reading to assist in decoding words spoken in a conversation. (Note: lip-reading words spoken randomly, without context, is very difficult).  This entertaining and challenging puzzle (link to a Wired on-line article entitled A Classic Back-to-School Lip-Reading Puzzle) will test whether you can match a given list of names to faces in an illustration by lip-reading, given the context that each boy in the illustration is on the verge of pronouncing his name.