Archive for June, 2012

Don’t miss the Venal eclipse


Next week, Venus is going to pass between us and the sun. The moon did it very recently, and far more dramatically. The moon does it all the time – there are solar eclipses every year somewhere on Earth. Even when the moon doesn’t completely block the sun – such as the annular eclipse last month – it’s called an eclipse.

But Venus … well, it’s just too far away to appreciably block the sun. In fact, without special equipment for viewing it, you won’t even know it’s happening. (Unless someone tells you.) So it’s not an eclipse, really. (Though I really like the name “Venal eclipse”. Don’t you?) No, it has the much more pedestrian name, “Transit of Venus”.

But don’t let the name fool you. This is a rare and scientifically valuable event. Transits of Venus have been used as far back as the 17th century to estimate the size of the solar system. Also, we only get two transits in over a century. They come in pairs about 8 years apart. We had one in 2004; before that, the last one was in 1882. After this one, we won’t have another transit until 2117.

So check out what events your local observatory or science centre is hosting (here in Edmonton, the Telus World of Science has a free viewing event). Or set up your own viewing equipment. (Don’t try watching with your naked eyes or sunglasses. You won’t see the transit, and you’ll hurt your eyes.)

I’m planning on using the pinhole box method. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy watching.

PS: Here’s a nice website full of information about the transit. I think they even have phone apps. And don’t worry – if you miss seeing it yourself, I’m sure there will be plenty of videos and photos online to enjoy it second hand.


Help computers sound more human!


The annual Blizzard challenge has been launched. This isn’t some crazed track-meet for mad-scientist climatology. It is a competition – a sort of annual standardized test – for speech synthesis systems.

I could gabble on about speech synthesis and the exciting progress that is being made in the underlying technology, to help computers sound more natural and human-like. But I don’t want to bore you. (If you want a post on that, leave a comment. If I get any interest, I’ll post something.)

I think I’ll just mention that, aside from having a less grating voice in automated phone systems and whatnot, high-quality synthesis may be a real help for people with severe disabilities. You are likely familiar with Stephen Hawking, rock-star physicist and mathematician. You probably also know that he is wheelchair-bound and uses a computer to talk, due to a degenerative neural disorder.

He and many others, old and young, rely on computers to give their thoughts a voice. The better we get at producing human-like speech with computers, the more naturally these people will be able to interact with each other and with those of us who take fluent speech for granted.

So, I invite you to help make speech synthesis better. Your role in the Blizzard challenge is to rate the synthetic speech generated by the systems that have been entered in the contest. Just go here to start. (If you are a speech expert – such as a phonetician or speech technologist – then you need to use this link instead. It’s well-established that studying speech alters your perceptions in important ways. The task is the same, but the data will be analysed separately.)

Have fun!