Category Archives: AAC

Augmentative communication

ColorBrewer: Utilizing cartography software for color coding

It seems that I am getting a reputation for being a teensy-weensy bit doryphoric [1] and that may have some truth in it insofar as I hate – with a passion – the tendency for people to use the word “utilize” rather than “use” simply because the former sounds more erudite. It’s not, in fact, erudite; it’s just plain wrong. As I’ve said in previous posts, “utilize” means “to use something in a manner for which it was not intended.” So I can “use” a paper clip to hold a set of pages together; but I can “utilize” it to scoop wax out of my ears or stab a cocktail olive in my vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).

Colorado beetle

Doryphoric

So when I titled this post with “utilizing cartography software” I really do mean that and I’m not trying to sound clever by using a four-syllable word (utilizing) over the simpler two-syllable using. No siree, I say what I mean and I mean what I say: utilize. The software in question is online at ColorBrewer: Color Advice for Cartography and its original purpose was to help map makers choose colors that provide maximum contrast. Let’s create an example. Suppose you have a map of the US and you want to use colors to show the average temperatures as three data sets; below 50F, 51F-65F, and above 65F. You can use three colors in one of three different ways:

  • (a) Sequential: Three shades of a chosen color from light to dark to indicate low to high values. e.g. Sequential color
  • (b) Diverging: Three colors that split the data equally in terms of the difference between the colors, but with the mid-range being related to a degree of difference between the extremes. Divergent color coding
  • (c) Qualitative: Three colors that split the data into three distinct groups, such as apples/oranges/bananas or trains/boats/planes – or for the statisticians out there, any nominal level data. Color coding qualitative

For a map of temperature averages, you’d choose the sequential coding so as to show the degree of change. Here’s what such a map might look like:

Three data point colors

Three data point colors

Compare this with a version whereby we chose to have six data points rather than three i.e. less that 45F; 46F-50F; 51F-55F; 56F-60F; 60F-65F; above 65F.

Six data points colors

Six data points colors

What the software does that is interesting is that it automatically generates the colors such that they are split into “chromatic chunks” that are equally different. The lowest and highest color values for each map are the same but the shades of the intermediate colors are changed. If you were to choose a set of 10 data points, the software would split those up equally.

Of course, as the number of data points increases, the perceptual difference between them decreases i.e. it becomes harder to see a difference. This is one of the limitations of any color-coding system; the more data differentials you want to show, the less useful colors become. You then have to introduce another way of differentiating – such as shapes. So if you had 20 shades of gray, it’s hard to see difference, but with 20 shades of gray and squares, triangles, rectangles and circles, you now have only 5 color points for each shape.

One of the areas where color coding is used in Speech and Language Pathology is AAC and symbols. In the system of which I am an author [2] color coding is used to mark parts of speech. But suppose you were going to invent a new AAC system and wanted to work out a color coding scheme, how might you utilize the ColorBrewer website?

If you’re going to design your system using a syntactic approach (and I highly recommend you do that because that’s how language works!) you could first identify a color set for the traditional parts of speech; VERB, NOUN, ADJECTIVE, ADVERB, PRONOUN, CONJUNCTION, PREPOSITION, and INTERJECTION [3]. This looks suspiciously like a nominal data set, which corresponds to the Qualitative coding method mentioned at (c) above. So you go to the ColorBrewer site and take a look at the panel in the top left:

ColorBrewer Panel

ColorBrewer Panel

You can set the Number of data classes to 8, the Nature of your data to qualitative, and then pick yourself a color scheme. If you chose the one in the graphic above, you see the following set recommended:

Eight color data setFor the sake of completeness, here are all the other options:

ColorDataQualSet2You can now choose one of these sets knowing that the individual colors have been generated to optimize chromatic differences.

So let’s assume we go for that very first one that starts with the green with the HTML color code #7FC97F [4]. I’m going to suggest that we then use this for the VERB group and that any graphics related to verbs will be green. Now I can move to step 2 in the process.

Verbs can actually be graded in relation to morphological inflection. There are a limited number of endings; -s, -ing, -ed, and -en. Knowing this, I can go back to the ColorBrewer site and use the sequential setting to get a selection of possible greens. This time I changed the Number of data classes to 5 and the Nature of your data to Sequential. Here’s what then see as a suggested set of equally chromatically spaced greens:


ColorDataQualPanel2

This now gives me the option to code not just verbs but verb inflections, while chromatically signaling “verbiness” by green. Here’s a symbol set for walk and write that uses the sequential – or graded – color coding:

Color-coded symbols

Color-coded symbols

If you want an exercise in AAC system design, knowing that ADJECTIVES also inflect like verbs using two inflectional suffixes, -er and -est, you can try using the ColorBrewer to create color codes [5].

There are probably many other ways to utilize the site for generating color codes. For example, you might want to create colors for Place of Articulation when using pictures for artic/phonology work, and seeing as there are a discrete number of places, it should be easy enough. Why not grab yourself a coffee and hop on over the ColorBrewer now and play. But only use it if you’re creating a map. Please!

Notes
[1] A doryphore is defined by the OED as “A person who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.” It comes from the Greek δορυϕόρος, which means “spear carrier,” and it was originally used in the US as a name for the Colorado beetle – a notable pest. This beetle was known as “the ten-striped spearman,” hence the allusion to a spear carrier.  To then take the noun and turn it into an adjective by adding the -ic suffix meaning “to have the nature of” was a piece of cake – and a great example of using affixation to change a word’s part of speech. As always, you leave a Speech Dudes’ post far smarter than you entered it!

[2] Way back in 1993 I was invited to join the Prentke Romich Company’s R&D department as one of a team of six who were tasked with developing what became the Unity language program. The same basic program is still used in PRC devices and the language structure has been maintained such that anyone who used it in 1996 could still use it in 2014 on the latest, greatest hardware. The vocabulary also uses color coding to mark out Parts-of-Speech but not exactly like I have suggested in this article. Maybe next time…?

[3] The notion of 8 Parts-of-Speech (POS) is common in language teaching but as with many aspects of English, it’s not 100% perfect. For example, words like the, a, and an can be categorized under Adjectives or added to a class of their own called Articles or – by adding a few more – Determiners. So you might see some sources talking about 9 Parts-of-Speech, and I like to treat these as separate from adjectives if only because they seem to behave significantly differently from a “typical” adjective. Another confounding factor is that some words can skip happily between the POS and create minor havoc; light is a great example of this. The take-away from this is that sometimes, words don’t always fit into neat little slots and you need to think about where best to put them and how best to teach them.

[4] In the world of web sites, colors are handled in code by giving them a value in hexadecimal numbers – that’s numbers using base 16 rather than the familiar base 10 of regular numbers. Black is #000000 and white is #FFFFFF. When you’re working on designing web pages, it’s sometimes useful to be able to tell a programmer that you want a specific color, and if you can give them the precise hex code – such as #FF0000 for red and #0000FF for blue – then it makes their job easier and you get exactly what you need. You can also something called RGB codes to described colors, based on the way in which the colors (R)ed, (G)reen and (B)lue are mixed on a screen. Purple, for example, is (128,0,128) and yellow is (255, 255, 0). Take a look at this Color Codes page for more details and the chance to play with a color picker.

[5] I suppose I should toss in a disclaimer here that I’m not suggesting that creating an AAC system is “simply” a matter of collecting a lot of pictures with colored outlines and then dropping them into a piece of technology. There is much more to it than that (ask me about navigation next time you see me at a conference) so consider this article just one slice of a huge pie.

The Dudes Dissect “Closing the Gap” 2013: Day 2 – Of Speech and Sessions

Having looked at the vocabulary used in the Closing the Gap 2013 preconference sessions, it’s time to cast a lexical eye on the over 200 regular presentations that took place over two-and-a-half days. For most attendees, these are the “bread and butter” of the conference and choosing which to attend is a skill in of itself. It’s not uncommon [1] to have over ten sessions run concurrently, which means you’re only getting to attend a tenth of the conference!

So let’s take a look at the vocabulary used in the titles to all theses presentations to get a flavor of the topics on offer.

Conference Presentations: Titles

The total number of different words used in the session titles was 629 after adjusting for the top 50 words used in English [2]. As a minor deviation, kudos to all who used the word use correctly instead of the irritatingly misused utilize. Only one titled included utilizes – and it was used incorrectly; the rest got it right! For those who are unsure about use versus utilize, the simple rule is to use use and forget about utilize. The less simple rule is to remember that utilize means “to use something in a way in which it was never intended.” So, you use a pencil for drawing while you utilize it for removing wax from your ear; you use an iPad to run an application while you utilize it as a chopping board for vegetables; and you use a hammer to pound nails but utilize it to remove teeth. Diversion over.

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

No prizes for guessing that the hot topic is using iPad technology in AAC. Your best bet for a 10-word title for next year’s conference is;

How your students  use/access iPad AAC apps as assistive technology

This includes the top 10 of those top 20 words so your chances of getting accepted are high.

Conference Presentations: Content Words

The total word count for the session descriptions text is 2,532 different words (excluding the Stop List), which is a sizable number to play with. And when I say “different words,” I mean that I am basically counting any text string that is different from another as a “word.” So I count use, uses, used, and using as four words, and iPad and iPads as two. A more structured analysis would take such groups and count them as one “item” – or what we call a LEMMA. We’d then have a lemma of <USE> to represent all the different forms of use, which lets us treat use/used/uses/using as one “word” that changes its form depending on the environment in which it is sitting [3]

Top 50 Words By Frequency in Session Content

Top 50 Words By Frequency

A 2,3oo-word graphic would be rather large so I opted to illustrate the top 50 most frequently used words. As you can see, the top words seem to be the same as those in the titles, which suggests that on balance, presenters have done a good job overall in summarizing their presentation contents when creating their titles – something that is actually the strategy you should use.

Keywords in Content

Finally, let’s take a look at the keywords in the session content descriptions. Remember, the keywords are those that appear in a piece of text with a frequency much higher than you would expect in relation to the norm.

Top 10 words by Keyness score

Top 20 words by Keyness score

Top of our list here are apps with the iPad coming in at three. Fortunately this fetish for technology is tempered by the inclusion in our top 20 of words like strategies, learn, how, and skills, all critical parts of developing success in AAC that are extra to the machinery. It’s good to think that folks are remembering that how we teach the use of tools is far, far more important than obsessing over the tools themselves.

Coming next… The Dudes Dissect Closing the Gap: Day 3 – Of Content and Commerce. In which the Dudes look at the marketing blurbs of the Closing the Gap exhibitors to discover what the “hot button” words intended to make you want to buy!

Notes
[1] WordPress’s spell and grammar checker flagged the phrase “it’s not uncommon” as a double negative and told me that I should change it because, “Two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out. Sadly, this fact is not always obvious to your reader. Try rewriting your sentence to emphasize the positive.” Well, although I generally agree that you shouldn’t use no double negatives, the phrase “not uncommon” felt to me to be perfectly OK and not at all unusual. I therefore took a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found that “it’s not uncommon” occurs 313 times while “it’s common” scores 392. This is as near to 50/50 as you get so I suggest to the nice people at WordPress that “it’s not uncommon” is actually quite common and thus quite acceptable – despite it being a technical double negative.

[2] For the curious among you, here are the contents of the Stop List I have been using, which is based on the top 50 most frequently used words in the British National Corpus (BNC): THE, OF, AND, TO, A, IN, THAT, IS, IT, FOR, WAS, ON, I, WITH, AS, BE, HE, YOU, AT, BY, ARE, THIS, HAVE, BUT, NOT, FROM, HAD, HIS, THEY, OR, WHICH, AN, SHE, WERE, HER, ONE, WE, THERE, ALL, BEEN, THEIR, IF, HAS, WILL, SO, NO, WOULD, WHAT, UP, CAN. This is pretty much the same as the top 50 for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, except that the latter includes the words about, do, and said instead of the BNC’s one, so, and their. Statistically, this isn’t significant so I suggest you don’t go losing any sleep over it.

[3] When you create and use lemmas, you also have to take into account that words can have multiple meanings and cross boundaries. In the example of use/used/uses/using, clearly we’re talking about a verb. But when we talk about a user and several users, we are now talking about nouns. So, we don’t have one lemma <USE> for use/used/user/users/uses/using but two lemmas <use(v)> and <use(n)> to mark this difference. It gets even more complicated when you have strings such as lights, which can be a verb in “He lights candles at Christmas” but a noun in “He turns on the lights when it’s dark.” When you do a corpus analysis of text strings, these sort of things are a bugger!

The Dudes Dissect “Closing the Gap” 2013: Day 1 – Of Words and Workshops

Regular readers of the Speech Dudes will know that when the “Dudes Do…” a conference, Day 1 is typically all about the travel experience, usually including some unfavorable comments about taxi cabs and hotel coffee, but this time I’m feeling charitable and, although not yet ready to “Hug a Cabbie,” I’ve decided to provide an overview of the preconference sessions, which I didn’t attend.
Now, you may think that not having attended a workshop might put me at a bit of a disadvantage with regard to reporting on content and offering a critique – and you would be right. On the other hand, what I can comment on is the contents of the preconference brochure that everyone can have access to prior to the actual event and which they use to decide the workshops and sessions they want to attend.

So what you’re going to see is an example of corpus linguistics in action, dissecting the very words used to influence YOUR choices. In short, you’re about to learn about what words presenters and marketers use to make up your mind for you. Grab your coffee, hold on to your hats, and prepare to be amazed at what you didn’t know!

Methodology

The Dudes are big believers in the scientific method and the application of evidence-based practice. We strive for some objectivity where possible, although we acknowledge that our occasional rants may be just a tad subjective. We don’t expect our readers to take everything we say as gospel sharing the methodology of how we analyzed our data seems fair.

The raw data came straight from the official conference brochure, available for any to check at http://www.closingthegap.com/media/pdfs/conference_brochure.pdf. From that I extracted all the text in the following categories:

  • Preconference Workshop Titles
  • Preconference Workshop Course Descriptions
  • Conference Session Titles
  • Conference Session Descriptions
  • Exhibitor Descriptions

Technically, I simply did cut-and-paste from the PDF and then converted everything to TXT format because that’s the format preferred by the analysis software I use.

WordSmith 6 is a wonderful piece of software that lets you chop up large collections of text and make comparisons against other pieces of text. These comparisons can then show you interesting and fascinating details about how those words are being used. I’ve talked in more detail about WordSmith in our post, The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012 – Of Corpora and Concordances, so take a look at that if you want more details.

Once I have the TXT files, I can create a Word List that gives me frequency data, but I also use a Stop List to filter out common words. If you simply take any large sample of text and count how often words are used, you’ll find that the top 200 end up being the same – that’s what we call Core Vocabulary. And when you’re looking for “interesting” words, you really want to get rid of core because its… well… uninteresting! Hence a Stop List to “stop” those words appearing.[1]

Preconference Workshop Titles

The first opportunity you have to encourage folks to come to your session is to have a title that makes a reader want to find out more about what you have to offer. The title is, in fact, the door to your following content description. Of course, you have to find some balance between “catchy” and “accurate.” For example, a paper I presented at a RESNA (Rehabilitation and Engineering Society of America) conference entitled Semantic Compaction in the Dynamic Environment: Iconic Algebra as an Explanatory Model for the Underlying Process was, in all fairness, technically accurate, but from a marketing perspective it had all the appeal of a dog turd on crepe. [2]

Let’s therefore take a look at what seem to be the best words to use if you want to attract a crowd.

Pre-conference Sessions: Keyword in Titles

High frequency words in Pre-conference titles

High frequency words in preconference titles

The Word Cloud here counts only words that appeared twice or more, and the size of the words is directly proportional to frequency, so it’s clear that students is a critical word to use, followed closely by iPad, technology, learning, and communication. On that basis, if you’re planning to submit a paper for 2014, here’s your best “10-word-title” bet for getting (a) accepted and (b) a crowd:

The implementation of iPad technology for learning and communication

In the event that the CTG review committee find themselves looking at multiple courses submitted with the same title, you’re going to have to consider how you describe your actual course contents – and luckily, we can help there, too!

Preconference Sessions: Keywords in Course Content

The actual highest frequency words were workshop and participants, which is something of an artificial construct because most people include phrases such as “in this workshop, participants will…” and so I removed these from my keyword analysis.

Frequent words in preconference sessions content

Frequent words in preconference sessions content

So to further enhance the pulling power of your course, you need to be talking a lot about students, how they use iPads and communication, along with using apps to learn, enhance learning, and any strategies that help meet needs. In fact, you need to include any of these Top Ten words:

Top Ten keywords in Pre-conference session content

Top Ten keywords in preconference session content

But wait, wait… there’s more

I’ve been using the word keywords to refer to those words that appear within a piece of text more frequently than you would expect based on comparing them to a large normative sample. If you perform  a keyword analysis on the preconference contents sample, you find that the top five keywords that appear are iPad, iPads, AAC, apps, and students. This suggests that we do an awful lot of talking about one, very specific brand name device – which is good news for the marketing department at Apple!

Top 15 words by Keyness score

Top 15 words by Keyness score

The relevant score is the keyness value. The higher the keyness, the more “key” the word is i.e. its frequency in the sample is significantly higher than you would expect to see in the normal population. So when you look at the table above, you’re not just seeing frequency scores but how significantly important words are. [3] As an example, the word iPads is used less frequently than the word communication (10 times as against score 16) but iPads is almost twice as “key” as communication i.e. it is significantly more important.

Now, as a final thought for folks who are working in the field of AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), I suggest that if you are developing vocabulary sets for client groups, using frequency studies is certainly a good start (and more scientific than the tragically common practice of picking the words “someone” thinks are needed) but if you then introduce a keyness analysis, you can improve the effectiveness of your vocabulary selection.

Coming next… The Dudes Dissect Closing The Gap 2013: Day 2 – Of Speech and Session. In which the Dudes present an analysis of the words used to describe conference session titles and contents. Find out how to improve your chances of getting paper presented!

Notes
[1] In truth, there is more I could say about the methodology, and were this intended to be a peer-reviewed article for a prestigious journal, rest assured I’d go into much more detail about some of the finer points. However, this is simply a blog post designed to educate and entertain, so I ask you to allow me some leeway with regard to precision. I’m happy to share the raw data with folks who want to see it but all I ask is you don’t toss it around willy-nilly.

[2] Not only did it have a title that included the word “algebra” but it was scheduled for 8:00 am on the final day (a Saturday, no less) of the conference. Surprisingly, people showed up – which says more about the sort of folks who attend RESNA conferences rather than anything about my “pulling power” as a presenter.

[3] There is a mathematical formula for the calculation of keyness values. One way is to use the Chi-Square statistic; the other is to use a Log-likelihood score, which is something like a Chi-Square on steroids. As I’ve often said, I didn’t become an SLP because of my ability to handle math and statistics, so I admit to finding these things a strain on my brain. However, for the non-statistically inclined among us, the point is that both these measures simply compare the frequency value of a word from an experimental sample against the frequency value it has in a very large comparative sample (such as the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American), and then shows you how similar or dissimilar they are. If their frequencies are very, very dissimilar, the word from the experimental sample is a keyword – like iPad and AAC in the examples above. Now feel free to pour yourself a drink and let your brain relax.

Little Things DO Matter – Even Little Words

Sometimes the linguistic stars align and a lexical event of supernova proportions takes place. More specifically, unless you’ve been taking a vacation on an island without an internet connection or phone service [1] you’ve doubtless learned about the word twerk and, if you’re really unlucky, seen it demonstrated by pop princess Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus. Once the idol of millions of teen girls across the world, Miley is now the idol of millions of aged perverts who can’t wait for her to make a real porn movie instead of the “R”-rated performance she provided for the VMA Awards ceremony on August 25th, 2013.

Public domain image

Let’s twerk!

Tempting as it is to pander to the prurient and show you videos and pictures, there’s little need to do that because at this moment in time as I suspect 50% of the world’s internet content is already full of such material, and if you start typing “Miley Cyrus” into your search engine, you’ll probably get millions of links even before you get past the third “l” in her name!

As an SLP working in AAC, my interest is strictly professional and concerns the revelation from August 28th that twerk has officially entered the Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) site – that’s just three days after Miley’s graphic demonstration. So, just in case you are unsure, here’s the actual definition of twerk as used by Oxford:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
Verb [no object]: informal.
Dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.

Surprisingly, it was first noted in the 1990′s, and it is thought to be an alteration of the word work in the sense of “work it, baby, work it.” Normally when new words are added to the ODO, it’s fairly low-key and only word nerds really care. However, in this instance, it’s as if the Oxford marketing department had contracted with Miley to do her bump-and-grind act purely to promote the “release” of the new word – and a spectacular release it was! As I write, typing twerk into Google search returns 20,300,000 hits. Hell, “The Speech Dudes” only gets a paltry 4,990,000 hits!

So let’s think a little about what we can learn from this little episode because we, the Dudes, would like to think of our little piece of cyberspace here as being educational – in the most laid-back of ways, of course.

When the inclusion of twerk was announced to the world, thousands of commentators leaped forward to say that it was now a “real word” because it was “in the dictionary.” I want you all to take another look at that second phrase, “in the dictionary.” The significant element is the use of the word the as a determiner that precedes a noun. Typically, we use the - often referred to as the definite article – to refer to a single, specific thing. But we use the word a (0r an) – the indefinite article – to refer to one of many things. There is a world of difference between “Pass me the pencil” and “Pass me a pencil.” There’s an even bigger difference between, “Hey, you’re just the man!” and “Hey, you’re just a man!” And although some folks treat the and a/an as merely “fillers” that can be ignored, there are some occasions where they are absolutely crucial to the meaning of a sentence. Tell me “You’re the shit!” and I’m happy; tell me “You’re a shit!” and I’m a wee bit upset.

In this instance, the reality is that twerk has been added to a dictionary and not the dictionary. If it had been added to the dictionary, we’d have had to be clear which one that was, and then agree that is was the only one that matters. For me, “the dictionary” is the 20-volume complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED), 2nd edition, and anything else is “a dictionary.” But for twerk, as I mentioned earlier, the dictionary in question is the Oxford Dictionaries Online dictionary, which is a very different beast than the OED. A number of commentators failed to mention this, and indeed some suggested it was the OED.

Picture of a dictionary

Is it in the dictionary?

The ODO is what you would call a “living dictionary,” which is aimed at capturing the global lexicon as it exists now. It’s a less profane and more researched version of the Urban Dictionary, which is also a living dictionary but without vetting or investigation. Words can, in fact, be taken out of the ODO if they cease to be used, whereas once a word gets into the OED, it never leaves. This is because the OED is a “historical dictionary” that aims to trace the meanings of a word from its earliest known use through to either its demise (anyone used shrepe [2] lately?) or its latest meaning. For example awful didn’t originally mean “terrible” but “wonderful” – it referred to something that left you full of awe.

Something else we can learn is the speed at which a new word can be used in its constituent morphological forms i.e. twerk, twerking, twerks, and twerked. Using ghits [3], we see the following hit figures, which gives us some idea of the distribution of the word as a whole [4]:

     twerk: 20,300,000
     twerking: 17,700,000
     twerks: 2,850,00
     twerked: 439,000

Not surprisingly, we find that an adjective form also exists, twerky (71,200 ghits) but there’s a dearth of adverbial examples with twerkily only scoring 84 ghits, which is close to nothing. I should, however, now total all these up because they are all forms of the base form twerk, pushing the total ghit score up from 20,300,000 to just over double at 41,360,200.

For folks working on teaching vocabulary, the “teachable moment” from the whole Miley Cyrus debacle would be to use the word twerk as a springboard for reinforcing regular morphology. Thus, any worksheet along the following lines would be splendid:

“Miley Cyrus says she likes to TWERK. In fact, she TWERK___ a lot! We saw a video yesterday and she was TWERK____. Some people think she shouldn’t have TWERK___ at all.” [5]

So there you have it. Vocabulary, morphology, frequency studies, and the critical importance of the definite and indefinite articles. And who says the Speech Dudes site isn’t educational?

Notes
[1] If you’ve never done this, it’s highly recommended. It’s what used to be called a vacation, when you went away to somewhere very different from your home and spent one or two weeks doing fun and relaxing things that were not work related. Sadly, many people are now permanently connected to their jobs via smart technology and actually start their vacation mornings by checking work emails or making a couple of calls. This is not called a vacation; it’s called working from home – for which you don’t get paid. Cutting yourself off from the world is surprisingly difficult and something you really have to plan for and work at. Try it – and see if you have the will to do it!

[2] Shrepe means “to scratch” and comes from the Old English screpan=to scrape, which in turn came from  Old Norse skrapa=to scrape or erase, and ultimately from an unattested but re-constructed Germanic word *skrap-=scrape. Shrepe sadly went out of fashion in the 13th century but it’s good to pull such words out of the closet once in a while and wear them for just a day.

[3] Ghit is short for “Google hit,” which is the number of hits an entry in the Google search box gets. It appears just below the search term in a phrase such as About 39,300 results (0.13 seconds). It’s not an official measure in the world of corpus linguistics but it a pretty useful “quick and dirty” way of estimating web frequencies. If you find a word or phrase that only has ONE ghit, it’s called a googlewhack. Try slipping that one into your next conversation at the bar.

[4] Trying to define a “word” is not as easy as you might think. For example, are eat, eats, eating, ate, and eaten 5 words or just one? After all, the difference between eat and eats is simply based on whether you are talking about the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person i.e. I/you/we/they eat but he/she/it eats. One way to get around this is to talk about something called a LEMMA, which is basically the dictionary form of a verb – such as twerk. A dictionary would, for instance, have the word eat as an entry, but not necessarily eats, eating, or eaten. It would, however, include ate because it’s a very irregular form of the lemma, eat.

[5] I admit that shamelessly using Miley Cyrus’s despicable behavior to teach language worries me no more than when I used beer bottle tops as poker chips to teach my daughters to count. Some may question my use of alcohol and poker for my “teachable moment” but hey, what can I say – I’m a dude!

“I don’t care what the research says…”

A colleague of mine was asking for some references to support the notion that kids with severe learning difficulties can learn to use high frequency core words (such as want, stop, and get) because they were being told that what these kiddos really use (or need) are words like toy, cookie, and banana. I duly provided a quick sample of peer-reviewed articles and shared the information with other colleagues. And what the hell, I’ll share them with you, dear reader, in the References section at the end of this piece.

Reading the research

Reading the research

But another of my friends also commented that there are still those folks who respond with comment such as, “I don’t care what the research says, I don’t care who these kids are. These are not the kids I’m working with. The kids I’m working with just aren’t going to use these words.”

So what do you do about this? At what point does being “critical of the research” become “ignoring the research because I don’t believe it.”? In the world of Physics, it’s hard to say, “I don’t care what the research says, I’m still going to fly using my arms as wings.” Mathematicians don’t say, “I don’t care what the research says, 1 + 1 does equal 7.” And it’s a brave doctor who would say, “I don’t care what the research says, you go right ahead and smoke 40 cigarettes a day and you’ll be just fine.”

No-one would argue that Speech and Language Pathology as a profession will ever achieve the rigid, statistical certainties of physics and mathematics, but what does it say about our profession if we openly admit to ignoring “the research” because it doesn’t fit with our individual experience? There are certainly enough practices  in Speech Pathology that are hotly debated (non-speech oral motor exercises, facilitated communication, sensory integration therapy) and yet still being used. But all of these are open to criticism and lend themselves to experimental testing, whereas an opinion based on personal experience is not. I could tell you that I have used facilitated communication successfully, but that is still personal testimony until I can provide you with  some measurable, testable, and replicable evidence. This is one of the underlying notions of evidence-based practice in action.

However, it’s  one thing to talk about using evidence-based practice but another to actual walk the walk. If the evidence suggests that something you are doing is, at best, ineffective (at worst, damaging), how willing are you to change your mind? If 50% of research articles say what you’re doing is wrong, how convinced are you? What about 60%? Or 90%? At what level of evidence do you decide to say, “OK, I was wrong” and make a change?

If there’s anything certain about “certainty” it’s that it’s uncertain! Am I certain that teaching the word get to a child with severe cognitive impairments is, in some sense, more “correct” or “right” than teaching teddy? No, I am not. But what I can do is look at as many published studies of what words kids typically use, at what ages, and with what frequency, and then feel more confident that get is used statistically more often across studies. This doesn’t mean teddy is “wrong,” nor does it preclude someone publishing an article tomorrow that shows the word teddy being learned 10x faster than the word get among 300 3-year-olds with severe learning problems.

But until then, the current evidence based on the research already done is, in fact, all we have. Anything else is speculation and guesswork, and no more accurate than tossing a couple of dice or throwing a dart at a word board.

Being wrong isn’t the problem. Unwillingness to change in the face of evidence is.

References
Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C., & Buras Stricklin, S. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for Toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19(2), 67-73.

Dada, S., & Alant, E. (2009). The effect of aided language stimulation on vocabulary acquisition in children with little or no functional speech. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 18(1), 50-64.

Fried-Oken, M., & More, L. (1992). An initial vocabulary for nonspeaking preschool children based on developmental and environmental language sources. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 8(1), 41-56.

Marvin, C.A., Beukelman, D.R. and Bilyeu, D. (1994). Vocabulary use patterns in preschool children: effects of context and time sampling. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 10, 224-236.

Raban, B. (1987). The spoken vocabulary of five-year old children. Reading, England: The Reading and Language Information Centre.

There’s no such thing as a “free” app, so get over it and pony up!

In this article, I’m, not just on a proverbial hobby-horse but whipping it frantically as I gallop wildly into the Valley of Death. I may even end up offending some readers but hopefully make some new friends along the way. So saddle up and join the posse!

One boy and his horse

Imagine getting the following e-mail from someone who wants you to provide therapy services for their child.

Dear Therapist

I am the parent of a child who cannot speak and really needs help. I saw that you offer therapy services to people like my child and I’d love to have access to them. However, I am really surprised that your therapy services are so expensive and think that you should provide them free of charge. Other people provide free therapy services and there are also many people who are not therapists who provide free therapy services in their spare time.

I’d be happy to provide a recommendation of your therapy services to other people if you were to provide them to me for free. Otherwise, I am afraid I will just have to blog about how expensive your therapy services are and go somewhere else. It seems so sad that children in desperate need of help are denied access to therapy services because of people wanting to make a profit from their disability.

Now I’m guessing that your response is likely to be along the lines of “no,” based on the notion that at the end of the day, you’d like to be able to eat, stay warm, and maybe feed your family. You might also be wanting to pay off the huge loan  you took out to train for years to become a therapist in the first place – because those greedy folks at the college expected you to pay for your education! And if you were to give free therapy to this client, the “recommendation” would result in everyone else wanting free help, and that’s not usually a sustainable business model.

OK, so why not copy the email into a document and do a search-and-replace that changes every instance of “therapy services” to “apps.” Hell, why don’t I make it even easier and do that for you below:

I am the parent of a child who cannot speak and really needs help. I saw that you offer apps to people like my child and I’d love to have access to them. However, I am really surprised that your apps are so expensive and think that you should provide them free of charge. Other people provide free apps and there are also many people who are not therapists who provide free apps in their spare time.

I’d be happy to provide a recommendation of your apps to other people if you were to provide them to me for free. Otherwise, I am afraid I will just have to blog about how expensive your apps are and go somewhere else. It seems so sad that children in desperate need of help are denied access to apps because of people wanting to make a profit from their disability.

Sounds familiar?

So how about another stark contrast just to hammer home a little more how ridiculous we all are – and we’re all guilty – when it comes to value and pricing with apps.

Hands up anyone who buys at least one coffee per week from a local coffee store.

Hands down.

The nice people at Statistic Brain estimate that the average price on an espresso-based coffee in 2012 was $2.45, and a brewed one was $1.34. So if you drink an espresso-based coffee each week for a year, you are out-of-pocket by $127.40. More sobering is that there’s a good chance you drink more than one a week, and just having two takes you up to $255 and tax.

So remind me again; why do we whine about paying 99 cents for an app? Why do we jump through hoops to badger, harass, cajole, and even blackmail app developers into giving us freebies? If I’m happy to spend $250 per year on something as trivial as a cup of non-essential coffee, why will I not spend $1 on an app that is apparently “essential” for a child’s education? Is coffee more valuable than education?

Our sense of “value” and “worth” has gone totally to pot when it comes to apps. It defies belief that consumers somehow believe that either it costs nothing to create an app or that app creators are making money out of the wazoo from their yachts just off of Miami Beach. We are, in fact, victims of Crapponomics, the naive misunderstanding of how apps work from an economic standpoint.

Why did this happen? Why is it that when an app developer asks $1.99 for something that took weeks of work we are shocked at the effrontery to ask such an outrageous price and invent some form of “special case” as to why we deserve a freebie?  Let’s take a look at Crapponomics 101.

Crapponomics graphic

1. The apps “anchor” was originally free.
In Economics, there’s a concept known as the “Anchor Point.” As the name suggests, it’s the selling price at which you drop your anchor when you bring a new product or service to market. Once an anchor is set, new folks tend to cluster around your safe harbor and drop similar anchors. And when people start purchasing products, this anchor becomes the standard against all other similar products are measured. The average price of an app in 2012 was $1.58, which is 87 cents cheaper than a cup of espresso-based coffee.

The best anchor point for a consumer is usually free. If I want stuff, and the stuff costs me nothing, how bad can that be? Well, the obvious thing is that there’s a little thing called quality that gets factored into the equation, but you’d be surprised (or not) how much quality will be sacrificed on the altar of Free.  And in the early days of iPhones and iPads, the majority of apps were free – which became, and remains, the anchor.

2. Most apps are for marketing, not profit.
In his seminal work, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argued that human beings are basically the gene’s way of making new genes. We are, in fact, merely hosts for DNA, and the name of the game of Life is for DNA to exist. In a similar fashion, apps are just the tablet device’s way of creating more tablet devices. Apple, Samsung, and even Microsoft, don’t need to write apps because what they want is to sell tablets [1]. The purpose of the free Angry Birds games is to sell angrier and more expensive birds; the purpose of the free United Airlines app is to get you to buy tickets on United Airlines; the purpose of the free Pandora app is to get you to subscribe to the full Pandora service. Folks will pay for more birds, better airline seats, and more music but still begrudge the 99 cents for an app designed by a professional clinician and software engineer to help a client improve. And that’s because we mix up the free app with the for-profit app, and forget the value of expertise and quality.

3. We see apps as “things” and not a piece of intellectual property.
Ask yourself why you want an app in the first place. Usually it’s because it offers you something that would take you a long time to develop yourself (if at all) and will in some way help your clients succeed. So why are you reluctant to pay someone for taking the time to do all that work for you? Is 99 cents really too much to ask for the hours and hours a developer has put into it?

The problem is that most folks look at apps the same way they look at cans of beans on a shelf; you find the ones you like, stick ‘em in your basket, and pay at the counter. But many apps – particularly those for therapy and education – have taken someone a long time to create. What you are buying is their years of experience in their field of expertise, their time designing the content, their cost to employ a programmer, and any royalties they in turn might be paying “behind the scenes” for things within the app [2].

4. Apple are not a charity and take their cut.
Folks who create apps know that despite the image that St. Stephen of Jobs carefully crafted to portray Apple as a caring, sharing, warm-and-fuzzy group of lovable kooks sticking it to “the Man,” they want 30% of everything that goes out via iTunes. Everything. If you write an app for an Apple device, you cannot sell it other than via iTunes – and that’ll cost you 30% of your selling price. Every 99 cent app that we begrudgingly pay for nets the developer 66 cents. Does anyone think to harass Apple because they get 33 cents for distributing? Nope, the developer gets the blame.

And how about that “freebie” thing? Well, Apple are kind enough to offer developers some free codes that they can use for promotion purposes, but after that, if the developer wants to give one away, they have to pay for their own app – and Apple still gets the 33 cents! That “free” app you are so adamantly demanding costs the developer (a) 66 cents in lost income and (b) 33 cents real money to Apple [3].

5. You have to sell millions of 99 cent apps to buy a boat.
Another basic rule of Economics is that to make a profit you can either sell millions of very cheap things at a small margin, or a few very expensive things at a large one. The Crapponomics assumption by consumers is that app developers make money by following the former route; millions of apps at 99 cents = sun-kissed beaches and mojitos in Hawaii.

But there are two underlying assumptions here that are inaccurate. The first is that the sort of apps being developed for therapy and education do not sell in millions. Not even close. The second is that there are not significant profits to be made from an app; simple math soon whittles down the margins. For a 99 cent app, Apple takes 33 cents, leaving 66 cents. Of that 66 cents, there’s usually at least two people to pay – author and developer – so that takes it to 33 cents each. Take out something for the IRS (like Apple, tax folks want their pound of flesh and you stand no chance of getting a “freebie” from them!), maybe a little for marketing, and that “dollar an app” profit has shrunk down smaller than a guy’s nuts on an Alaskan winter’s morning.

Think of the value, not the anchor
So do you still think paying 99 cents is too expensive? Or $1.99? Maybe even $4.99? Remember, that 99 cent app is supposed to make it easier for you to provide a service – for which you WILL be charging substantially more than 99 cents.

If a “life-changing” app costs $4.99, who in their right mind would quibble with that? Has the value of education and therapy reached the point where folks will pay more for a couple of pints at the bar than they will for their child’s future? I suppose that 60-inch LCD TV from  Best Buy is a “good investment” but the $99.99 for an AAC app isn’t? Where has our sense of value gone? I suppose paying Verizon Wireless $40.00 every  month for a data plan is normal for our wired life but hounding the developer of a $2.99 app  for a free copy balances that out.

We need to realize that when we buy an app we are not paying for the virtual equivalent of a can of beans but the skills, knowledge, and time of an experienced educator or clinician. Only then we will begin to stop the decline in the undervaluing of therapy and education as a whole.

Sometimes, there just isn’t an app for that.

Notes
[1] From Apple’s perspective, even the sale of the tablets isn’t where the big money resides; that’s coming from their greatest invention; iTunes. Although most folks would suggest that the iPod, iPhone, and iPad are Apple’s best inventions, it’s their delivery system that was their masterstroke. In order to get anything into your iDevice you need to download from iTunes, and Apple makes money on every download. Every app, book, song, movie, or video earns them cash, and that’s pure genius.

[2] Most app authors are in the true sense “authors” and not “writers.” They don’t actually write programming code for a device, and often have no idea about how code works. In a similar fashion, when Snooki claims to have “authored a book” she is being truthful; someone else actually “wrote” it based on Snooki’s ideas (whatever those may have been.) What this means is that the “99 cents” you pay  is now starting to get split many ways, and the author isn’t getting anything near 99 cents.

The average cost to develop and app has been estimated to be anywhere between $8000 and $200,000.  Here’s a good article called The Cost of Building an iPad App. Ideas for apps are cheap – we all have them – but software engineers are not, neither is your time. You might think that if you are designing an app in your “spare time” then it’s free, but the only reason you have “spare time” is that you’re already being paid for a job! The real test of the cost is to quit your real job and then go to the bank to see how much they will lend you to design an app.

[3] My standard disclaimer here is that I have no problem with any company making a profit. Apple developed the iTunes distribution system and have every right to recoup their development efforts by charging people to use the system. Although I may not want to say, “Greed is Good,” I’m OK with saying, “Making a profit is just fine.” My beef is more that for some reason, people seem to see Apple as the good guy and app developers as trying to gouge customers by charging for their apps. Folks seem happy to demand free 99 cent apps but don’t expect apple to give them a $700 iPad. Why is that? And Apple are the ones who force up app prices by asking for 30% of the selling price and only providing a limited number of free codes. So why don’t people rail on Apple about this? It seems that the richest company on the planet gets a “pass” but struggling app developers get the hassle. If Apple doesn’t give free $700 iPads, Verizon doesn’t offer free $40 monthly data plans, and Best Buy doesn’t let you walk off with a free 60-inch TV, why should an app seller give away a free 99 cent piece of software? Stop picking on the little guys!

The Dudes Do ATIA 2013: Day 2 – Of Schedules, Starbucks, and Support

Having a Master’s degree may qualify you to practice as a Speech Pathologist or Special Educator but it doesn’t prepare you for one of life’s trickiest of tasks: planning your schedule at a conference [1]. If you have a Ph.D. in Cryptography or 20 years of Project Management experience, you might just be able to get through two days before everything falls apart and you end up crying into your cocktail at the pool bar. Otherwise the best strategy is to walk into any room at random and when the session ends, follow a group into another. Given that 75% of all the sessions at a conference are going to contain information you’ll find useful, statistically speaking you’re likely to find the random approach very productive.

However, this year, the folks at ATIA  made it really easy to keep track of your time by offering a free mobile app for Android and Apple platforms. You could also use a web-based version but that has been available before – and it’s the app version that’s more useful while wandering around the conference hall. Unlike some folks who seem to be happy to carry around a bag the size of a small car, I’m more inclined to adopt a minimalist approach and try to carry as little as possible. This means my wallet (back right-hand pocket), trusty Droid 3 (front left-hand pocket), fountain pen of the day (front right-hand pocket), and bright red Quo Vadis notebook (carried). And this year, instead of stuffing sheets of paper with session information into my notebook, I downloaded the ATIA app to my Droid and all was well!

ATIA 2013 app feedback

ATIA 2013 app feedback

The feedback on the app shows that most folks have it on an iPad, then iPhone, and finally an Android. It would have been nice if the feedback had offered a “No sir, I don’t like it” rather than the biased “Tell us what you like it on” but presumably the reasoning is that folks who don’t like it won’t use it. Still, maybe next time…

There was another amazing piece of Assistive Technology I stumbled across for the first time this year; the Starbucks vending machine! OK, so maybe you don’t count this as “assistive technology” but it certainly helped me.

Starbucks AT

Starbucks AT

All you do is pop a cup under the spigot, swipe a credit card or debit card, press a few buttons, and out pops a cup of Starbucks’ java without the need to talk to a human being. Or in the case of the Caribe Royale Conference Center, without the need to get into a car, head out of the hotel, take two right turns, drive about a mile, and pull up at the nearest actual Starbucks store.

The exhibit hall was busy during the morning. As might be expected, it was awash with tablets, all looking surprisingly the same as everyone and their dog joins in the frenzy to create the “next great AAC app” which looks just like the “last great AAC app.” And in an effort to adapt tablets to do the job of a dedicated AAC device, you can now attach an array of “peripherals” that are doing a great job of completely destroying the idea that having an iPad “makes you look like everyone else.” By the time you’ve bought a box to fit it in, speakers to make it louder, an interface box to add a switch, and a mounting kit to make it fit to a wheelchair, the thing looks more like a Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson contraption than a sleek piece of technology.

In the new world order of consumer AAC, there is no “evaluation” along traditional lines. Rather than assess an individual to determine their needs and then select from a range of potential devices, the new consumer goes to Best Buy, asks the “expert” which iPad to buy, and then looks for anything on iTunes with 4 stars and downloads it. Problem solved.

But of course, it isn’t. Those of us who have been in AAC since the advent of the personal computer in the 80′s (and yes, there WERE devices with speech output before the iPad, whatever Apple may want you to believe) know that just dropping a device in someone’s lap – sometimes literally – does not solve the problem. In fact, simply providing a piece of technology and then walking away is called abdication, not intervention. There is a frightening tendency to think that “there’s an app for that” applies to everything, when there are many, many factors involved in helping someone succeed with an AAC system.

I’ll say again, because Apple zealots seem to disagree with me, that my beef is not with technology – and being in the technology and software vending game myself should be proof enough of the pudding – but with the lack of support given in the choosing, teaching, and long-term supporting of clients with communication needs, the solution to which is only partly aided by a device, whatever flavor that may be. I do not doubt the sincerity of anyone who is trying to help provide a way for folks with communication impairments to express themselves. But when there are over 150 apps labeled as “AAC” apps, how does anyone decide which to use? And more fundamentally, once a choice is made, how do you then support it – because I guarantee that no matter how much money your school district is spending on providing “communication solutions,” it’s spending a whole lot less on employing more staff to actually support it! If it took one teacher 2 hours a week to work with one kiddo with an AAC device, how many does it take to work with 5 kids with iPads? The answer appears to be “one, because that person has to work 5 times harder.”

Cartoon of man exercising

OK, rant over. I’ve taken a deep breath and a shot of tequila [2] and am beginning to mellow. Tomorrow sees me doing the first of my presentations and having to go to several meetings. Thank goodness I have the ATIA conference app to remind me of when and where I need to be for my session!

Notes
[1] There is another conference-based task that has a similar level of complexity; splitting the bill at a restaurant. It’s inevitable that if you’re doing it right, at some stage during a conference you’ll have a rollicking, riotous good time with a bunch of new and old friends at some great restaurant or bar. Until the check arrives and you have to split the bill 14 ways. This not only causes your server to suffer from raised blood pressure (“Can we have separate checks – all 14 of us?”) but there’s no way anyone wants to simply divide the bill by 14 because Annette, Betty, and Cheryl shared two bottles of wine, but Erica only drank water, and Frank and Gerry were having a shot-drinking contest, while Harry insisted on a fresh lobster but Ian only had soup and a salad, and only Jan, Karen, and Larry had a desert…

The best way to address this one is to wait until ONE person goes to the restroom and then everyone else makes a run for it. This won’t, of course, work twice with the same group.

[2] If you read yesterday’s post and recognized this sentence as an example of syllepsis, congratulations! If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, go there right now and find out what syllepsis is ;)

Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary

Those who follow the Speech Dudes on Twitter (@speechdudes) may recall a mysterious tweet from December 28th, 2012, that referred to something called the Monteverde Invincia fountain pen.

Tweet from DecemberAnd those who are regular readers of this blog may vaguely recall that one of the Dudes has a passion for pens that marks him out as being either very old-fashioned, slightly quirky, or perhaps requiring of medication. But the Invincia is a pen of such style, charm, and delicious darkness that I’m guessing at least one of you out there will be ponying up the $75 just to get one of these wonderful objects of desire in your hand. Literally.

Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen

Monteverde Invincia Stylus

But first, because this is, after all, a blog written by SLP’s for other SLP’s, educators, language lovers, and all moms and dads with a curious bent, let’s talk a little bit about vocabulary.

In the field of augmentative and alternative communication, where the Dudes earn their daily crusts, it’s common to talk about words as being either core or fringe. Actually, up until five years ago, it wasn’t always that common but the proliferation of apps for tablets has seen the words core and fringe become almost essential to the marketing blurb of any of these apps – whether or not it’s true. Just tossing the words out doesn’t make an app a good communication tool, nor does copying what other folks have done and dropping it into a few pages make it any better. No, app creators need to learn what the words really mean before using them as sales jargon [1].

But if you are serious about creating a word-based solution, you can use the following definitions to help you in your quest:

Core Word: A word with a high frequency-of-use value that is also what you might expect to see statistically when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

Fringe Word: A word with a low frequency-of-use value that is also what you might expect to see statistically when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

Keyword: A word that has a higher frequency-of-use than what you might statistically expect when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

You’ll notice that I have purposely defined these as statistical phenomena and not as actual words that may be referred to as “useful,” “necessary,” “essential,” “uncommon,” or any other such subjectively nuanced adjectives. You’ve hopefully also picked up on the notion that there needs to be a “reference corpus” of some sort. The best reference corpus I suggest is one I like to call “the English language” because that is the thing that we all need to use in order to communicate with one another. So using the Corpus of Contemporary American or the British National Corpus is fair game. And when it comes to core vocabulary, you’ll find that even if you look at the small vocabulary lists that have been collected in the AAC field from different age group across different situations, you’ll find the same words are common to all [2].

If you’re already working in AAC, you may not be familiar with the use of the term keyword but it’s taken from the world of Corpus Linguistics and I find it a very useful concept to apply. For example, in the world of education, when folks talk about “core words” in relation to Core Communication Standards, they are really talking about keywords; the word vertex is a “core word” in math but is a keyword from an AAC perspective.

Keywords are words which are significantly more frequent in a sample of text than would be expected, given their frequency in a large general reference corpus. (Stubbs, 2010) [3]

So, let’s go back to my encomium [4] on the Monteverde Invicia Stylus pen and see what we can learn about core words, fringe words, and keywords.

The first thing is that the world of pens and paper has specialized vocabulary – or more specifically uses some words in specialized ways. This would be keyword vocabulary within the domain of “Fine Writing.” Thus, the word nib is statistically a fringe word when compared to a general vocabulary but becomes a keyword within the context of discussing fountain pens. In essence, keywords are typically domain-specific items and a sub-set of fringe.

To give you a feel for what keywords you might find, I did a quick(ish) analysis based on a 10,000 word corpus created from a popular blog about fountain pens and their use. Using WordSmith 6 software, I created a word list based on the text from the blog, then used the KeyWord facility to determine the top 2o keywords in the sample i.e. those words that were being used statistically more than you might expect when compared with a standard reference (and in this case, my standard reference is the British National Corpus).

The following “league table” illustrated keyword vocabulary in the domain of Fine Writing.

Keywords "Fine Writing"

Keywords “Fine Writing”

The words fountain and pen appear separately but when you look at the concordance data, the two actually appear typically as fountain pen, so I wouldn’t regard fountain itself a keyword – the keyword is the compound noun, fountain pen.  If I’d taken a few more minutes, I could have put the singular and plural forms together so we wouldn’t see separate entries for pen(s), ink(s), cartridge(s), converter(s), and color(s).

Knowing about such keyword vocabulary is, in fact, very useful. My enthusiasm for my new pen can be explained to you much more succinctly if I can use the keywords. For example, I recommend that if you want one of these pens, you are better off with the medium-sized nib because that will spread the ink out to facilitate clearly writing. Furthermore, since one of the great features of the pen is that it includes both a cartridge and a converter, knowing the words cartridge and converter is helpful! If I then explain that a converter is a small barrel that you can use to suck up ink from an ink bottle, you now know that by buying different inks you can choose which ink colors you’d like to have.

Vocabulary lesson aside, the pen is indeed a stylish addition to anyone’s fashion accessories. Its brushed metal, matt-black finish and fine ribbing give it a distinctive appearance with a hi-tech accent. Its darkness is reinforced by having a shiny black stainless-steel nib, which makes it look like the sort of pen Darth Vader might have used to sign the order authorizing the construction of the Death Star (“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side!”) or that Batman has somewhere on his utility belt (“Quick Robin, use the BatPen!”)

Pen showing internal converter

Pen showing internal converter

It writes smoothly and has the merest hint of a squeak as it glides across paper, which is not a bad thing in the world of fountain pens. It’s classed as a heavy pen (1.4 oz. or 4.0 grams) and so has a much more solid feel than some cheap, plastic ballpoint.

Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen nib

Even the nib is black!

To boost its hi-tech credentials even more, the cap is tipped with conductive rubber so it can be used with a capacitive touchscreen; in short, you can write on your favorite tablet device! I’ve tested it with the Galaxy Tab 7″ display, the 10″ display model (my favorite), the iPad 3 ,  a Motorola Droid 3, Microsoft Surface, and all have worked just fine.

Conductive rubber tip

Conductive rubber tip

There is a white version of the pen available but that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s the blackness that makes it sharp! And with a retail price of $95, it may sound steep to those who are new to the world of fountain pens. But you can get it from Amazon for $75, and other Internet sources are quoting $65, so there are deals to be had.

Long term, there are lots of different inks to choose from. Monteverde offer a range of inks but you should check out Glenn’s Pens where there is a good article on Fountain Pen Ink along with a dizzying array of brands and color options [5]. Another great resource is The Goulet Pen Company, where you’ll also find videos related to pens and paper.

Oh, and it you do buy the pen, drop us a note – then we know who we won’t be able to impress by whipping out our Invicia’s!

Notes
[1] And while we’re at it, there is a special place in the nine circles of Hell (possibly the 8th) reserved for anyone who claims their app is “intuitive,” “ground-breaking,” or, heaven forbid, “game changing.” If it takes me fifteen minutes and four or five keystrokes to find a word like already, and if there is no way for me to actually find it other than hitting key after key after key until  I stumble across it, you have NO right to talk about “intuitive,” “ground breaking,” or “game changing” – unless the “change” in question is to set AAC back 10 years by providing sub-par sops that do nothing more than provide a 10-minute solution that then requires hours and hours of fiddling to add all the stuff that was missing in the first place.

Just sayin’…

[2] If you want a list of a many vocabulary sources, there’s one available via this Dude Link! Link to list of vocabulary articles

[3] Stubbs, M. (2010). Three concepts of keywords. In M. Bondi and M. Scott (Eds.) Keyness in Texts: Studies in Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing: Philadelphia. Available via this Dude Link Link to article on keywords

[4] Here’s one of those wonderful words that deserves to be taken out of the box now and again, dusted down, polished up, and tossed into a sentence just to brighten up an otherwise lexically turgid day. The OED defines encomium as “a high-flown expression of praise.” It come, via Latin, from the Greek enkomion (ἐγκώμιον) and ultimately eulogia (εὐλογία) or “eulogy,” which means “praise.” And yes, the logia element does mean “speaking” and is the same root as logos meaning “word.” Only the Dudes would bring you Classical Greek and make it interesting!

[5] My favorite ink at the moment is made by Diamine and called “Syrah,” a splendid dark-red that looks particularly fetching against the ivory paper of my Quo Vadis Havana journal. I use it in my Cross Torero Bourdeaux Croc, which is a broad-nibbed red colored pen that lives in my travel bag.

Cross Torero Croc red fountain pen

The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012: Day 5 – Of Language and Linguists

I’ve been an SLP for almost 30 years but my first degree is  in Psychology and Linguistics. I fully intended to become a Psychologist [1] but strayed from the path and ended up in Speech Therapy. Needless to say, my fascination with our profession has always been viewed through a linguistics lens and regular readers will already have detected that. In fact, one of the luminaries of AAC, Sarah Blackstone, for many years believed I was a linguist and not an SLP, and I have been introduced as a linguist at more than one conference.

This is probably why I still like to hang out with real linguists, who are much smarter than I and from whom I continue to learn lots of new stuff. So it’s no surprise that I went along to Wednesday afternooon session entitled Natural Language processing and AAC: Current advances at the interface between technology and communication.

Natural Language Processing

NLP

 The presenters were more like a panel, bringing different perspectives on how the application of NLP could help the development of AAC [2]. NLP is a cross-over field of linguistics, artificial intelligence, and computer science that deals with analyzing, understanding and generating the languages that humans use naturally in order to interface with computers in both written and spoken contexts using natural human languages instead of computer languages. The main professional body that exemplifies the scope of NLP is the Association of Computational Linguistics, which publishes the journal, Computational Linguistics, on a quarterly basis. With the latest edition including articles with titles such as A Context-Theoretic Framework for Compositionality in Distributional Semantics, and Learning Entailment Relations by Global Graph Structure Optimization, it’s not a field that SLPs are falling over themselves to join. It’s also not a journal I read regularly but then there are so many journals out there it’s impossible to keep track.

SLPAT logo

The folks were also there to promote awareness of a new special interest group called the SIG for Speech and Language Processing in Assistive Technologies, or SLPAT for short. And yes, if you misread it as “splat,” you’re OK because its members also affectionately call it “splat” as well [3].

For those who wonder what Natural Language Processing might offer to AAC, it’s worth bearing in mind that NLP is already being used in a number of areas that we use daily. If you’ve ever used a web-based translation system to read foreign text, then you’ve made use of NLP. If you’ve ever used a speech recognition system such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking or Microsoft Sync in your car, then you’ve benefited from NLP. And if you’ve scanned a document and had a piece of software convert it to text, you’re seeing NLP in action.

In relation to AAC, a number of research initiatives are already underway. Jeff Higginbotham from the University of New York at Buffalo is working on a “just-in-time” message system that will work with AAC devices to provide web-sourced topic-based content using internet (and intranet) natural language processing techniques. Annalu Waller from the University of Dundee is working on prediction-based phonemic AAC systems  (the PhonicStick®) where NLP algorithms are used to determine which sounds are most likely to follow others. Karl Wiegard and Rupal Patel have been investigating non-syntactic word prediction to create systems that can correct user-generated utterences that have flawed syntax. And at the Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, Melanie Fried-Oken and her colleagues are working with brain-controlled interfaces and spelling systems, the operation of which can be optimized by using special NLP-based software to improve accuracy and speed of selection.

All of these are currently still in the research phase so you needn’t be asking how much you’ll need to buy one, but it’s research like this that will ultimately lead to products, even if 90% of university projects simply end up as articles in journals or a paper that ends with the immortal lines “much more research is needed.”

And if you’re looking for questions, quite a few turned up at the session, most coming from Melanie Fried-Oken who, as a clinician, really wants to see some practical, hands-on solutions. Here are some – of several –  that interested me;

  • Can NLP help us design systems that can adapt to the actual language used by an individual with an AAC device, and maybe even reconfigure the device as a result of this?
  • Can NLP help in the tracking of the vocabulary, representation, and navigation elements of an AAC system?
  • Can NLP help design systems that identify and end-user’s language level?

These resonate because they are the very same questions my collegues and I have been asking for a couple of years now, and have been slowly working towards. In the field of AAC in general, the notion of automatic data logging is not new and has been available for some time on a number of AAC devices. The fun bit is deciding where next to go with this, and how best to leverage the current data collection methodologies. As soon as there’s something to present to the world, we’ll be happy to share!

Meanwhile, for those interested in finding out more on SIG SLPAT, or even if you want to join, you can go to their web site at www.slpat.org and read about the aims of the group [4]. There’s a special edition of the Computer Speech and Language journal out before the end of the year that will be about NLP and Assistive Technology, and the next SIG-SLPAT conference will be in 2013 in France – somewhere. There will be a call for papers later in the year so get your NLP thinking caps on and dust off that passport…

Notes
[1] Just a few weeks before I left for University, a friend of my sister was talking to my local newsagent about my moving and asked what I was going to study. Apparently she told him I was studying to be a psychopath. I sometimes wonder how un-wrong she may have been…

[2] The presenters were Kathy McCoy, University of Delaware; Annalu Waller and Alan McGregor, University of Dundee; and Melanie Fried-Oken and Brian Rourk, Oregon Health & Science University. I apologise if I missed someone.

[3] It’s pretty well impossible not to read SLPAT as “splat,” in the same way that fashion store French Connection: UK used the acronym FCUK on all their advertising, knowing full well that folks word read it otherwise! The company voluntarily stopped using the acronym in 2005, but not before stores such as Bloomingdales refused to handle FCUK branded items.

[4] I did see what would happen if I made an error and typed “splat.org” instead of “slpat.org” and found myself at a rather boring “parking site” with links to paintball activities. More fascinating was the “splat.com,” which took me to the home of the Sizzling Platter restaurant group, whose products include Little Caesars Pizza, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Sizzler Steak House.

The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012: Day 4 – Of Corpora and Concordances

Pittsburgh from Station Square

Pittsburgh from Station Square

Marketing applies as much to conference presentations as it does to selling beans. Or coffee. Or bagels[1]. Picking a good title is more important than the presentation itself. Really, it is. Which explains why my “first-thing-in-the-morning” session was not exactly standing room only. The presentation title was the technically accurate but marketingly disasterous Using Concordance Software and online Corpora in AAC. A much better title would have been Using Velcro and a Free iPad for New Simple Gamechanging Therapy. You see, this has all the buzz words that people scan for when reading a conference program. Free is always a winner; iPad is currently sexy; new suggests you will be surprised and maybe first to do something in your part of the world; Velcro® is something ALL therapists relate to; and game-changer is an over-used, over-hyped, almost meaningless vogue word that can be applied to anything in order to make it sound impressive. People who use the word “game-changer” should be hung, drawn, quartered, and made to read a thesaurus.

But I did, fortunately, hear from a number of folks who told me they wanted to come to the presentation but it clashed with another. It clashed, in fact, with several! So given a finite number of potential attendees divided by the number of sessions, as concurrency goes up, individual session attendence goes down. Therefore for those who were unable to attend, I can at least give you a brief summary of what I was talking about. And for those folks who couldn’t make it to ISAAC 2012 in the first place, I’m also including this link to my PowerPoint files and Resources List via the Dudes’ Dropbox account.

The first thing I covered was the difference between core, fringe, and keyword vocabulary. In AAC, the use of core and fringe is now fairly common but we need to make another distinction for something called keyword vocabulary. Here’s how these three words can be defined:

Core word: A word that has a high frequency of use value that is statistically expected when compared to a large reference corpus.
Fringe word: A word that has a low frequency of use value that is statistically expected when compared to a large reference corpus.
Keyword: A word that has a higher frequency of use which is significantly more frequent than expected when compared to a large reference corpus.

Notice that these definitions do not include any notion of “importance.” A common mistake is for people to say things like, “but Tommy loves Transformers so ‘Optimus Prime’ is an important core word for him.” No, “Optimus Prime” is a keyword for him. It may seem like a trivial distinction but it is useful.  Sure, it may be an “important” word for him” but that still does not make it core. Thus, when people talk about a “personal core” for an individual, they are really talking about a person’s keyword set. It is much better to use this because talking about a “personal core” seems to me to be confusing and changes the definition of core.

The notion of keywords has been taken straight from the field of Corpus Linguistics:

Keywords are words which are significantly more frequent in a sample of text than would be expected, given their frequency in a large general reference corpus. (Stubbs, 2010) [2]

Corpus Linguistics uses large data samples, or corpora, to look for patterns in language. The larger the samples are, the more reflective the data is of “real world” language use. One of the largest online sets of such corpora is those developed and maintained by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University in Utah. The Corpus of Contemporary American English [3] is based on a sample of 425 million words, and can provide frequency data of individual items, as well as contextual information on how these are typically used. This type of data can be useful for the AAC practitioner in determiner which words to include in a system and to answer questions about how a word may be used (e.g. is the work light used more as a noun than a verb?)

Another tool used by corpus linguists is concordance software. Such software allows investigators to input text and create output in the form of frequency lists, key word lists, and key words in context. The AAC practitioner can use client-generated data and run it through concordance software to build personal vocabulary lists. It’s also possible to compare a client’s data with other samples, which can also be very instructive for a clinician who wants to see how an individual’s use of language matches with a “standard.”

Concordance software

Concordance

Concordance is a flexible text analysis program which lets you gain better insight into e-texts and analyze language objectively and in depth. It lets you count words, make word lists, word frequency lists, and indexes.

You can select and sort words in many ways, search for phrases, do proximity searches, sample words, and do regular expression searches. You can also see statistics on your text, including word types, tokens, and percentages, type/token ratios, character and sentence counts and a word length chart.

Wordsmith concordance softwareWordSmith is a popular word-analysis software that includes features to generate word lists, frequency lists, usage lists, and keyword lists.

It also has the option to download the British National Corpus word frequency list to use as a large comparative data set. This is a great tool for investigating keywords among small data sets.

Now, a number of commercial devices have this data-logging feature included as an option, providing a record of events over time. With the client’s consent, being able to track such usage can be invaluable in helping clinicians and educators see exactly what the client is currently capable of doing and, by extension, create teaching plans that will develop their ability to use the device. But if you are prepared to clean the raw data from an AAC device up a little, you can drop it into a concordance software and works some magic. You can see how a client’s use of vocabulary matches what you might expect; you can discover a clients keyword vocabulary by filtering out core words; and you can look at how client’s use vocabulary in context e.g. where do they use the word light and how is it being used.

In summary, what I’m suggesting is that using (a) large online corpora and (b) concordance software can enhance the way on which we develop and expand AAC systems, and that both of these are based on actual usage of language and not some hypothetical construct of what we think is happening with vocabulary.

Enough of the academic stuff; I just want to alert you to an unmissable experience at Tonic Bar & Grill on the corner at 971 Liberty Avenue, just outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Those of a nervous gastronomic disposition may want to stop reading now – as may folks who are on any diet other than the “Let’s See How Fat I Can Get Before My Arteries Explode” diet.

At any time of day, you should prop yourself up at the bar, order one of their small selection of draught beers, and place an order for Poutine Fries [4]. This is a heavenly bowl of hot potato fries, smoothered in slippery, creamy cheese, and topped with a generous helping of tender braised short ribs. You can choose to experience this ambrosial feast either by eating it or having a cardiologist smear it directly on to your arteries: we recommend the former. How we managed to eat just one bowl is still a mystery to us but our hearts will undoubtedly thank us.

Poutine fries

Poutine Fries

Notes
[1] As it was an early presentation, I skipped breakfast, which meant that by the time I’d finished I was hungry. So a shout out to the good folks at Bruegger’s Bagels on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh who supplied me with their Breakfast Bagel, a mouth-watering treat of egg, cheese, and bacon on a crusty whole-wheat bagel. I’m pretty sure it’s not the healthiest of starts to the day but it sure is one of the tastiest.

[2] Stubbs, M. (2010). Three concepts of keywords. In M. Bondi and M. Scott (Eds.) Keyness in Texts: Studies in Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing: Philadelphia.

[3] Davies, M. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/.

[4] As our Canadian friend will know, Poutine Fries originated in Quebec and therefore represent a form of biological warfare against America, the intent being to bring the country to its knees by making everyone too fat to get up off of them. Rest assured that on their next trip to Montreal, the Dudes will make sure they take advantage of sampling the local Poutine Fries and would encourage anyone taking a trip to Canada to do the same!