Category Archives: Tech


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


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:


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!

[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 Do ASHA 2013: Day 1 – Of Pods and Paper

Regular readers of the Dudes’ blog will know that when we cover a conference, we rarely waste time on talking about the actual presentations. Those who were there saw them; those who were not can download them; and those who really don’t care don’t want to hear about them! So as ever, we’ll be using ASHA as the backdrop to topics of a much more global nature. We’re also keenly aware that as well as having regular readers, we also have some very irregular ones who choose us precisely because we’re a little like the really bad singers who try out for American Idol – off-key, off task, and off their heads.

Traveling to a conference is always an integral part of the whole experience. Flight delays, crying babies, crazy cab drivers, ending up in the wrong city – or country [1] – are not to be seen as “bad things” but life-enhancing events that can being hours of pleasure in their retelling over a few drinks in the bar with friends. So to make such expeditions more bearable, most folks have strategies for coping. In my case, it’s a book and my iPod. Except that three months ago, someone stole “my precious” along with my Starbucks card. If there’s ever a crime that cries out for at least felony status – and possibly the death penalty – it’s that of depriving someone of their iPod and Starbucks card [2]. And traveling to a conference without access to music and podcasts is pretty close to cruel and unusual punishment.

Starbucks at McCormick Center in Chicago

Typical ASHA Session

So a week ago, I bought myself a “new” iPod, and I say “new” in parenthesis because the Classic pod is now a rare example of a fossilized technology. The latest 6th generation (version 2) device is fundamentally exactly the same as the original except for a larger hard drive (160GB) and thinner case, it’s the same as it was back in 2001. Yes, that’s 2001 – over 12 years ago, which is positively prehistoric for technology. No WiFi, no apps, no BlueTooth, no touch screen, just a physical hard drive on which you store media files and then play them. That’s about it.

What makes this happen is that there is no competition in this category. If you want a portable music player with lots of memory for songs, the iPod Classic is your only choice. This is why, of course, there have been no changes – there’s no need to modify a product that has a monopoly position. Without the forces of natural selection working on it, the Pod has not evolved. I guess you can use cloud-based systems these days but I still count such technology as less portable because you need access to a wireless connection. No, what I want is to have my huge music collection available to me everywhere, 24/7/365.

A bonus to the pod is the ability to be able to load up with podcasts. As the world of wireless access expands, the idea of downloading a file to a hard drive for later use seems old-fashioned to the Technorati, but as I said, 24/7/365 and everywhere is what an iPod offers.

Which leads me on to recommendations for podcasts. What does this Dudes listen to? Well, here’s a list of things you might want to try:

1. A Way With Words: Described as, “an upbeat and lively hour-long public radio show about language examined through history, culture, and family,” co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett talk with callers from around the world about slang, grammar, old sayings, word origins, regional dialects, family expressions, and speaking and writing well. They settle disputes, play word quizzes, and discuss language news and controversies. You may be surprised by its popularity – it’s heard by more than a quarter-million listeners each week over the air and by podcast.

2. A Word In Your Ear: Roly Sussex is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Queensland in Australia and has been talking about language to the radio listeners of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for over 15 years. It’s a great opportunity to get a flavor of how Australian English differs from other variations.

3. In Our Time: Hosted by the UK’s Melvyn Bragg, I recommend this because it’s possibly the ONLY show where you hear academics talk about… well, almost anything! The last few episodes had topics like “Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” “Ordinary Language Philosophy,” “The Book of Common Prayer, “ “The Corn Laws,” “Pascal,” “The Mamluks” and “Exoplanets.” So if you want to know a little about a lot (instead of a lot about a little) then this is well worth your time.

4. Skepticality: This is a show dedicated to the promotion of science and critical thinking. It’s really about evidence-based practice without actually using the words “evidence-based practice” in the title, and it regularly takes on pseudoscience, superstition, and con artists of all shapes and sizes.

So once I’m loaded up with book [3], music, and podcasts, my pre-flight check for any conference includes making sure I have all the kit necessary to let me spend a day going to sessions and keeping notes on anything that takes my fancy, but without needing to carry a bag around. So for the curious, here’s what I usually end up  with:

Portable items for attending conferences

Conference Kit – portable

Going clockwise from 12:00 o’clock:

1. A 3.5″ x 5.5″ Moleskine Reporter’s Notebook. It’s small enough to fit into a jacket pocket – or even the back pocket of your jeans – so it counts as portable. Designed to be held in one hand so you can just flip upwards from page to page, this is much easier than the more common right/left flip of a standard notebook. The back cover includes a small pocket that can hold several essential “Speech Dude” business cards.

2. Motorola Droid 3 for Twitter, SMS, and maybe the occasional photograph. It’s smaller than the Moleskine so fits into another pocket.

3. Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen. Not only incredibly stylish with a matte black body, a shiny black nib, and black ink, the end of the barrel has a conductive tip so I can use it on my Droid (or any tablet) as an electronic pen.

4. Cross Sauvage Azurite Blue Crocodile fountain pen. It’s just a beautiful pen and writes smoothly on ink-friendly paper. Sure you can use a freebie ballpoint that you picked up in the exhibition hall but that doesn’t say “stylish” or “chic.” It’s also a heavy pen so you feel like you are actually holding something of value.

5. Cross Torero Bordeaux Red Crocodile fountain pen. This one I keep loaded with red ink – something called Syrah from a company called Diamine – so I can contrast it with the blue of the Sauvage. This one is also a solid, heavy pen and one that I use quite a lot.

6. A 5.5″ x 8.5″ Rhodia Webnotebook with ink-friendly 90-gram ivory paper and 96 sheets of ruled lines. Not something you can slip in your pocket but you can lose it behind an iPad and it weighs less. And unlike most tablets, you don’t need to worry about charging it or dropping it – it’s very robust!

These low-tech solutions might seem a little dated, but what I find is that I can write, draw, and scribble numbers faster with pen and paper than I can with a piece of technology – and that includes my indispensable laptop. The other thing that writing-things-down does is to force me to look at stuff for a second time and then summarize information in a document on my computer. If I were to take notes straight onto my laptop or tablet (both of which I’ve tried) there’s a 95% chance I won’t look at them again! So the process of transcribing my notes is beneficial for me.

Late at the end of Day 1, the Dudes ended up at the bar in the Hyatt Regency drinking some rather tasty and markedly citrusy Anti-Hero IPA. We’d never heard of it as it’s a local Chicago brew from  Revolution Brewing but the concept of “Anti-Hero” struck us as interesting – in the same way that Arrogant Bastard seemed apposite at the ASHA 2011 Convention in San Diego. All we have to decide now is which of us is which!

Anti-Hero IPA beer from Revolution Brewing

Anti-Hero IPA


[1] After a long trip by train from Germany to Switzerland, I rolled into my destination hotel, the Holiday Inn in Geneva to find that strangely I was not registered. What I had failed to realize was that I was, in fact, checked in to the Holiday Inn in Thiory, France, not Switzerland. Fortunately this is classed as a Geneva Airport hotel because it’s just a few miles over the border and a cab ride got me there eventually. Nevertheless, it’s my one example of turning up in the wrong country. Still more fascinating was that the driver came from Spain and spoke no English – just a little French – and I speak no Spanish – just a little French. So between us we managed to have a rather interesting conversation in a type of Frenglish that L’ Académie française would have sent us to the guillotine for using.

[2] Another twist of the knife is that my card was one of the first gold cards ever issued by Starbucks. A friend’s sister works in Starbuck’s corporate marketing department so sent me one as a freebie over 10 years ago. Losing this card is like losing a little piece of history so even though I was able to cancel the auto-loading of the card, it’s the sentimental value that I miss.

[3] I’m plowing through Neal Stephenson’s technothriller Reamde, a hefty hardback version with 1,056 pages. It’s really quite entertaining but it’s almost like trying to read three novels rather than one. I’m getting close to my annual target of 52 books per year but I’m going to have to pick a few shorter ones to get back on track!

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.

[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!

Using the Pulse app to follow your favorite blogs

There was a time not so long ago when sitting down at the end of the day with a newspaper to catch up with world events was relatively normal. If you then watched a 30-minute new broadcast on TV, you were pretty much up to date.

In the 21st century, there are now more sources of information than you can shake the proverbial stick at, and there is no way to keep up with everything if you want to lead anything resembling a Life. So one way that technology can help you is to use a piece of software called an aggregator [1]. This is a single program that collects and displays in one location all the different sources of internet-based information that you might normally have to skip through to get you daily dose of news.

The one I use as my personal daily newspaper is Pulse, a multi-platform software that gathers up the latest information from a variety of media sources and pops them on-screen in an easy-to-view form.

Pulse icon


A great feature is that you can set up different pages (or tabs) for different sources, and this means it’s easy to have a simple BLOGS page just so you can follow your favorites. For those of you with iPads, here is a step-by-step guide to how to add a BLOGS page to Pulse.

1. Download Pulse for iPad/iPod.

2. When you first download Pulse, it takes you through setting up your first page and gives you lots of pre-chosen selections, such as Reuters News, BBC News, Lifehacker, GQ, and many, many others. Just choose a bunch so you can get up and running quickly and get a feel for the interface.

3. Once you are up and running, you can start adding your BLOGS tab by selecting the Cog icon for iOS app or the Stack icon icon at the top left [2].

Pulse home

Choose Settings Button

4. Select the ADD A PAGE option from the screen that pops up.

Add a new page

Add new page

5. Now touch the button for BROWSE THE CATALOG.

Bowse catalog


6. From the pop-up window that appears, click on the Search Box.

Search box

Click the Search box

7. Now type in either the name of the blog you want to add or the actual blog address. HINT: If you type a blog address then add “/feed” that can work better than just the address alone.

Type in the name of the blog you want to add

Type in the blog

8. When you see the blog appear below the Search window, touch the blue + sign and it will change to a check mark.

Checked blog

Checked blog

9. Your chosen blog is now on your new page, which you can see if you look behind the “What’s New” window.

Blog is added

Blog is added

10. Click on the X to close the window and you will end up on your Home page but now have a new tab next to HOME.

Blog added

Blog added

11. The final touch is to press and hold on the tab where is says “Page 2″ and yo can then edit it and type in BLOGS (or whatever). You now have a dedicated blog page where you can go ahead and add as many as you like.

Signing up with Pulse

If you want to go the whole hog and have your Pulse data available to you on any device, you should sign up for a Pulse account. This is incredibly painless as all they ask for is your e-mail and a password. That’s really it!

1. Click on the Pulse ME button button to get to the sign-up/login screen.

2. Choose Sign Up to create a new account with Pulse.

Sign up screen for Pulse

Sign up

Once you are signed up, you can now access Pulse from any platform for which there is software. Other than the iPad, I have tested it on a Droid 3, Samsung 7″ Tab, Samsung 10″ Tab, and the on-line version at the company’s website [3]. Although there may be some difference in the interface, which is essentially because of scree size, it is pretty slick to be able to access all the same information regardless of platform.

And a final word: thanks to Speech Dudes follower @abbiem (Abbie Moran) for prompting us to produce this article! You can check out her new blog at Thinking about Language.

[1] The use of the word aggregator as a collector of information from various sites dates back to 1995. However, in the 16th century, it referred to “a collector or compiler of medical remedies.” It comes from post-classical Latin aggregator meaning “compiler,” which in turn derives from the Latin verb aggregare, “to cause to flock together, or join together.” The prefix ag- is really just a variant of the common prefix ad- meaning “toward or to,” and the root element is the Latin grex meaning “a flock.” Speechies will recognize the process whereby the /d/ at the end of the prefix /æd/ becomes a /g/ when followed by /grɛks/ – assimilation. Non-speechies might like to try saying “adgregate” and you’ll see why “aggregate” is much easier!

[2] At the time of writing, Pulse is moving to its 3.0 version. The cog icon is being changed to the “stack of papers” icon (it’s impossible to find the name of a picture if you don’t know what it is!) so if you have a pre-3.0 version you will see the cog.

[3]  It works on Windows XP with Firefox (v. 18.0.1), Opera (v. 12.14), Chrome (24.0.1312.57), but I had problems with Internet Explorer 8 (v. 8.0.6001). Internet Explorer 9 (v. 9.0.8112) on Vista works fine.

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!

[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 ;)

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 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

[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

[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!

Productivity Essentials: “Dropbox” file sharing

A year ago (yes, it’s been that long since the Dudes have been around) we posted our Top Ten Essential Productivity Apps for the iPad. Top of our list was – and still is – the tremendously useful Dropbox, a multi-platform file hosting service that provides file sharing, cloud storage, and free software.

Dropbox logo


Dropbox Inc. was invented by an MIT graduate, Drew Houston, who allegedly developed it due to his constantly forgetting to carry a USB drive around with him to allow file sharing. The basic concept is that files can be uploaded from a hard drive to a remote server, and those files are then stored indefinitely or can be shared with others.

Initially, Dropbox was designed to work as a standalone PC program but it has reached its currently level of popularity by extending its coverage to multiple platforms – a critical design feature for any successful piece of software. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, along with mobile versions for Android, iOS, and Blackberry. There’s no news yet on how soon a Window 8 native version will be available but we predict it’ll be here by the end of this year. [1]

The first thing to do is sign up for an account at It’s quick, painless, and provides you with 2GB of free space, which you can grow up to 18GB by referring your friends (you get 500MB per referral, which means, contrary to current belief, you can put a price on friendship!) If you need more space, you can get 50GB for $9.99 per month (or $99.00 for a year), and 100GB for $19.99 per month (or $199.00 for a year).

Dropbox web interface

Dropbox Web Interface

The first significant value of Dropbox kicks in when you have multiple devices. For example, I have a desktop computer at home, a laptop for work and travel, a Droid 3 mobile phone, a Samsung Galaxy Tab, an iPad, and a beta Windows 8 tablet. It’s impossible to share data between these using USB sticks and so the ony way to do it is by wireless means, which means WiFi and cellular data transfer.

Dropbox Android Interface

Dropbox Android Interace

Dropbox makes it possible for all these disparate devices to talk to each other by sharing files, whether that’s text, graphics, music, or video. If you forget to take a file to a venue and have it stored on the Dropbox server, you’re good to go. Because the Droid 3 has an HDMI output, if my laptop goes down at a conference, I can hook up my smartphone to a big screen TV or HMDI-accessible projector and show my powerpoints right from the phone.

Dropbox iPad interface

Dropbox iPad Interface

The second big plus for Dropbox is the ability to share files with other people, whethter they have Dropbox or not. For those who have an account, you can set up jont folders and simply drop files into them. This is great for international projects when you can swap files with your colleagues all over the world without having to send them as attachments to emails. My daughter, who has a MacBook Air, has a folder that we share so I can help her when it comes to providing her with articles or checking her papers prior to her submitting them for evaluation. But whether it’s a daughter, a colleague, or a small group working on a special project, it’s easy to set up a shared folder with private access so you can swap files effortlessly.

Dropbox iPhone Interface

Dropbox iPhone Interface

When you have shared folders, a feature of Dropbox is that if anyone modifies the contents, everyone is informed. If you’re already hooked up to the internet, you get a real-time notification; if you’re offline when it happens, you see the notification as soon as you log on. It’s painless and happens in the background.

Where to get software and information
Dropbox Website (sign up account)
Dropbox for Android
Dropbox for iPad/iPad
Dropbox for Blackberry

CNET video: Four Tips for Dropbox
Dropbox Tips for Wizards, Intermediates, and Beginners
Dropbox Tips from Business Insider
The Dropbox Wiki: Tips and Tricks
The Ultimate Dropbox Tips-and-Trick Guide

If you haven’t signed up for Dropbox yet, go ahead and grab an account, then download the various apps for your mobile technologies of choice. Happy swapping!

[1] Current Windows 8 beta software does have SkyDrive, Microsoft’s proprietary cloud-based storage and of course, Steve Ballmer would love to use that – along with setting up a Microsoft Live account. Nevertheless, there are still many folks who do not want to be tied into one OS and Dropbox is truly cross-platform, caring not whether you are a Mac, Win, or Linux person. There’s also the issue that some people won’t want to essential “start from scratch” and create a new file structure in SkyBox when all they want is a portal to their current Dropbox account. They can use their web browser but having a native app is always better.

Get NUDE with the Dudes!

According to the Mayans, who may turn out to be less than accurate, the world will end on December 21st 2012. If you’re planning ahead, that’s a Friday, which is a real bummer for those of us who really look forward to the weekend – especially the one before the Christmas week when I typically start drinking for 2 weeks solid. On the upside, you can forget about buying all those expensive Christmas gifts and forget about the repercussions of the orgiastic debauch that’s called “The Office Party.”

Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

The End of the World

However, for some folks, apparently their world ended on June 29th, 2012, when Amazon’s North Virginia cloud server went down, a hubric victim of Mother Nature’s nemesis by way of a humongous storm. Oh, the irony – a cloud wiped out by a cloud! This resulted in the almost unimaginable shutting down of Netflix, Pinterest, and Instagram. Thank God Twitter and Facebook were still up so people could get their social fix and complain bitterly about how their lives were now ruined because they couldn’t watch Family Guy and post a picture of themselves watching Family Guy.

Storm over city


I have to admit that when I notice Twitter is down – and that’s becoming less common as the company improves its up-time – I have a nervous feeling of “missing something,” although it’s hard to work out what precisely is so important about Twitter than I might “miss.”

So it struck me that maybe I, and many others, are becoming a little too tech-dependent – almost pathologically so. A friend of mine took a vacation on the island of Tenerife recently and deliberately left all his technology at home. That included his phone. He took books, paper, pens, and suntan lotion. He said it took a few days to adapt but once he got past the cold-turkey, he was just fine. What ss more curious is how much resistance he got from work colleagues who felt it was their right to be able to contact him. On his vacation![1]

So the Dudes are promoting a new idea: going NUDE for a day!

NUDE is a backronym that stand for “National Unplugged Day Experience” when people around the world switch off their phones, laptops, tablets, and try to live a day without the trappings of technology. This is not an experiment in neo-Luddite living or some insane gesture by a few old geezers who are having a hard time with the modern world, but an opportunity to reconnect with our essential humanity rather than hide behind electronic walls that make us less social rather than more. The paradox is that the more “friends” we have on social networks, the less connected we really are. I’ve mentioned before the excellent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle but it really is worth reading, In fact, to whet your appetite we’re posting the DudeNotes version in our Boxnet account. One of her concerns is how the world of ever-on is preventing people from having critical “alone time,” and this is especially true of adolescents who have grown up in an always-connected world:

Adolescent autonomy is not just about separation from parents. Adolescents also need to separate from each other. They experience their friendships as both sustaining and constraining. Connectivity brings complications. Online life provides plenty of room for individual experimentation, but it can be hard to escape from new group demands. It is common for friends to expect that their friends will stay available—a technology-enabled social contract demands continual peer presence. And the tethered self becomes accustomed to its support.

This is why going NUDE with a Dude is important. It is a reminder to us all that solitude and reflection are psychologically necessary, and that they are seriously at risk of being trampled underfoot in the Brave New World of consensual social integration.

NUDE with the Dudes T

Get the T-shirt!

There’s a reason why the Borg [2] of Star Trek are seen as an enemy to humanity; they represent what the ultimate technological network could become. The writers made them physically scary by presenting them as half-human, half-robot, but if you want to imagine them much scarier, make them look just like you and me; human.

Google want us to wear glasses and be connected all the time, but that’s just a step to contact lenses, to ear implants, and to small chips physically connected to the cortex. At that point, I have seen the Borg – and they are us.

Dystopian futures aside, we’re open to suggestions on the date for NUDE day. It’s going to be really, really difficult to find a day that works because, of course, everyone will claim that it’s impossible to do their job without technology. That is, doubtless, true. Nor would anyone be able to tweet about it – the hashtag #Imgoingnudetoday is tautological – if you’re using it, you’re not doing it! So in all truth, it’s unlikely to be a perfect event.

However, if we can get people to acknowledge it in principle, and take part in as many ways as possible, that’s as much as we can hope for. If all someone can manage is to turn off the phone and wear the T-shirt, that’s OK. If someone can leave their iPad in a drawer for a day, that’s also good. The point is to raise awareness [3] that being disconnected is (a) possible and (b) good. And to quote Turkle one last time;

At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company.

…or go NUDE!

GOing NUDE T-shirt


[1] This is to be expected in the New World Order of ever-on. There is an unspoken expectation by employers and colleagues that we are always available, regardless of time, location, or health. I know of women who have used their phones to keep up with work immediately after giving birth! So there’s the double challenge of (a) turning off the tech and (b) telling your boss, and everyone else, you’re doing it. Don’t be surprised if your friends find it hard to believe you’re doing it. They may even give you reasons why you must have your phone (“What if there’s an emergency?”) Of course, not much more than 20 years ago no-one had cellphones and apparently went on vacation and dealt with “emergencies” just fine.

[b] The word borg derives from the longer word, cyborg, which is, in turn, a clipped form of the longer cyberorganism. The word first appeared in the 1960′s and became a standard of sci-fi novels to refer primarily to human-robot crosses. Typically a cyborg is technologically enhanced human: think Steve Austin, the 1970′s “Bionic Man,” a popular TV series that made prosthetics cool. Interestingly, the word cyberorganism uses the prefix cyber, which is actually a back-formation from the 1940′s word cybernetics, the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things. Ultimately, cybernetics comes from the Greek kubernētēs, which means “a steersman on a boat.”

[3] “Awareness” is the term of choice these days for any cause. “Raising awareness” is much easier to sell than demanding some kind of measurable change in something. Thus we have groups who want to “raise awareness about the dangers of smoking,” presumably targeted at the two, maybe three, people in the world who don’t already know this. In fact, many campaigns are called “X Awareness,” where X is the word for whatever it is you want to talk about, and many campaigns are designed to make you aware of something about which you are already aware!

My Car Has A Speech Problem: I’m Working On It!

It seems that’s it’s only a matter of time before we’ll spend as much time talking to machine as we do to people – perhaps even more so. As John Malkovich continues his televised love affair with Siri, I’m getting to grips with using Microsoft Sync  in my new car. Yes, not only can I now shout at my car when I get frustrated but it can talk back!

Thanks to the advances in speech recognition and consumer technology, I can now press a button in my car to make a phone call (“Call Bob at home”), find a restaurant “Find Italian Restaurant”), find my way home (“Directions Home, please”), and listen to any of the thousands of songs on my trusty old iPad Classic (“Play Album ‘Mi Bossa Nova’”). I’m pretty sure I’m close to asking my toaster to make me a lightly done whole-wheat bagel or telling my ice dispenser to make me a White Russian [1].

Sadly, it appears that speech recognition is not quite at the same level as human beings just yet. It appears my car is having a few problems with comprehension and expression. I’m not at the point just yet that I can provide a detailed phonological analysis but I intend to do assessment over the next few weeks.

My first hint that my car may have a disorder came after asking it to “Play track, ‘Fugazi.’” This is from the 1984 album Fugazi by the UK Prog Rock band, Marillion. For those unfamiliar with the word, it’s apparently US army slang and an acronym of “Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In,” which basically means everything has gone to pot, the shit has hit the fan, and the situation is unapologetically dire. The word is pronounced foo-GAH-zee (/fu’gɑ:zi/) or perhaps foo-GA-zih (/fu’gæzɪ/) but either way, it’s a /fu/ sound for the intial CV.

Unless, you are my car. When I tried to ask it to play the track, it seemed to be unable to understand, and it was only when offered me some alternatives that I worked out why; it asked me if I want to listen to FJOO-gah-zee, with the stress now on the first syllable, and an epenthetic palatal approximant, /j/.

Poor thing! Rather that seeing “fu” as being pronounced like “futon,” “further,” “full,” or “fun,” it seems to think it should be treated as the “fu” in “fuel,” “fuchsia,” “fugitive,” or “fume.” Of course, the fact that the pronunciation of “fu” can vary between /fju/ and /fu/ is what’s likely to be causing the problem. The system’s “brain” presumably contains rules that are applied to text strings, and one of those is something along the lines of ["fu"/fju/] and there may then be a list of “exceptions” – of which “fugazi” isn’t a member.

It’s also having a hard time with hearing Hounds Of Love [2], an album brought out by Kate Bush a year after Fugazi. Instead of Hounds Of Love, I get “Playing ‘Pretzel Logic,’” an admittedly terrific album from Steely Dan but irritatingly not the one I wanted!

So, I’ve decided the car needs therapy. It will doubtless be challenging because I can’t show it pictures and ask it to name things, nor can I give it any test that requires a pointing response (“Show me which one is a cat/hat.”) What I can do is ask it to play a selection of tracks and then when it gets the wrong one, jot down the error. Then, while the erroneous track is playing, I can ask it “What’s this?” and see how it pronounces it – which is basically how I discovered the “fugazi” misarticulation.

What I’m really looking forward to is expanding my practice to include the speech and language needs of non-sentient, pre-sentient, and semi-sentient machines that have issues. Surely as more technology becomes speech enabled, more technology will have problems.

Thinking back to my childhood, I suspect I may have stumbled on this while watching the very early (and very black-and-white) Fireball XL5, a UK puppet-based TV show about the adventures of Mike Zodiac and the crew of his spaceship, the Fireball XL5. Sure, the production values were not quite up to those of Prometheus, but this was a long time ago and as a child, your ability to suspend disbelief is stunningly high. One of the crew was Robert the Robot [2], who was made of see-through plastic, had a head like an upturned bucket, and had a problem with intonation and the habit of adding a /Ə/ vowel to the end of a word. Here’s a link to a YouTube clip where you’ll hear a sample of his speech:
 Maybe the plight of that poor mechanical man planted the seed of my becoming an SLP.

In the meantime, if any of you, dear readers, have a Ford with the Sync option, I’d love to hear from you with any examples of mispronunciation that your car has produced, and any mishearings it has demonstrated (like Pretzel Logic for Hounds of Love.)

Once I have a large enough sample, I’m planning to do an analysis and then offer it to the nice folks at Microsoft. That might get me a polite thank you letter or, if Bill Gates is feeling super kind, a new Windows 8 “Surface” when they release it.

Now all I need is for my toaster to develop a lisp…

[1] One part vodka, one part Kahlua, one part cream. If made in a glass directly, drop a few ice cubes in first, followed by the vodka, then Kahlua, and finally the cream. Stir gently. If made in a cocktail shaker, just be sure to fill it; one is never enough, especially while sitting on the porch on a cool summer’s evening. Oh, and don’t skimp – buy good vodka.

[2] The actual track, Hounds of Love, contains a clip at the very beginning that says, “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” This is from an excellent 1957 movie from French director Jaques Tournier called Night of the Demon (UK) / Curse of the Demon (US). Described by one critic as “one of the most intelligent and thoughtful horror films ever made,” it’s a black-and-white horror flick about a skeptical American psychologist, Dr. John Holden, who is cursed by an ever-so-English cult leader, Julian Karswell. It’s an amazingly atmospheric film and the fact that it is shot in black and white actually enhances it.

[3] The diminutive form of Robert is, of course, Rob or Robby (or Robbie, as our Scottish friends would insist). Anderson’s choice of name may have been influenced by the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, a loose remake of Shakespeare’s best play, The Tempest. The movie has the first appearance of Robby the Robot, who was destined to become an iconic cast member for the classic 1965/66 series Lost in Space.

Robby the Robot

Robby the Robot

Isaac Asimov also had a character called Robbie in a story of the same name back in 1940. However, the first use of Robbie is, according to Wikipedia, from a 1935 story by Lester Dent and Walter Ryerson Johnson called The Fantastic Island. Robbie is a mechanical version of the story’s hero, Doc Savage, used by him to confuse his evil foes.

What We Can Learn About “Intuitive” While Sitting On The Toilet

If ever a word deserved to be hung from a gibbet and flogged to death then buried in a concrete-sealed pit some 1000 meters deep, it’s intuitive. For some time now it has been slyly shifting its meaning from something that had value to a meaningless catch-all that’s lost any grip on reality.

The Oxford English Dictionary [1] gives us a reasonable and workable definition as follows:

a. Of knowledge or mental perception: That consists in immediate apprehension, without the intervention of any reasoning process.
b. Of a truth: Apprehended immediately or by intuition.
c. Of any faculty or gift: Not acquired by learning; innate.

The more recent definition that appears to have taken over is;

Requires no learning whatsoever.

This has, at least, the flavor of the OED’s “immediate apprehension” about it but it fails to consider the reality that in the real world, almost everything we know and do has to be learned. The amount of time it takes to learn something may vary, but we still have to learn it.

Which is where sitting on the toilet comes in.

If the closest you’ve ever come to visiting Germany is drinking Jäger-bombs at a pre-wedding Bacchanalia or singing along to the 80′s hit, 99 Luftballons, [2] you are extremely unlikely to have come across the word flachspüler. And before I define it, take a look at this picture:

German toilet

German toilet

Take a good look at the inside. Do you notice that there is a small hole at the front a shelf taking up much of the bowl? Now imagine – stay with me on this – you’re sitting on the toilet and engaging in some “evacuation.” Where does the stool end up? If you guessed “on the shelf,” then give yourself a round of applause.

So now, before you read on, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “brilliant” and 1 is “crazy,” rank how good an idea this shelf is. If you have never seen this sort of toilet before, how “intuitive” is the design?

Your evaluation of the “goodness-of-idea” will inevitably be based on previous learning and what you already know about the world and how it works. You know something about toilets but up until now, the aim has been to get the stool into the water as quickly as possible. The idea that you might want it to first sit on a shelf and then get flushed away has probably never crossed your mind.

Let me help your “intuition.”

The shelf is called a flachspüler. which comes from flach meaning “flat” and spülen meaning “to flush” or “to rinse.” So it’s literally a “flat flush.” The shelf performs two functions. The first is to prevent “backsplash,” the phenomenon whereby dropping a heavy load into a deep bowl can cause water to shoot up and provide an unintended botty-wash. The second is to allow for the inspection of the stool before it makes its merry way into the bowels of the sewage system.

Now you may find the notion of stool inspection rather bizarre, but when people are ill, collecting stool and urine samples is pretty standard practice when trying to determine a patient’s condition [3]. In fact, who amongst us hasn’t taken a peek at our poop to check that it’s normal in color and consistency? Those of us who have kids will remember well how we would not just change a diaper but take a peek at the poop to make sure things are OK.

The point is that in order to understand the meaning of the word flachspüler you either have to have been born and raised in Germany or read this article. In the first instance, asking a German to label the flachspüler in a picture would be thought of as “intuitive,” but for anyone else, it would be fairly impossible. What’s intuitive for a German is not intuitive for the rest of us.

This doesn’t apply just to bathroom furniture. It applies to the simplest of things. Here’s an example for the tablet generation: If you want to see a different screen on your device, how do you do it? You swipe from one side to the other, obviously. But how “obvious” is that?

Prior to the introduction of touch screen technology, the idea of swiping a screen didn’t exists. It’s a mode of access that is relatively recent and is now taken as intuitive. It’s so ingrained that when I bought my wife a Kindle, she tried to turn the page by touching the screen – and she’d never owned a touchscreen device before! Her knowledge of how to use the display was based on learned assumptions.

You see, many things are only in obvious if we’ve some experience of them – or elements of them – from the past. When people use a check mark for yes and a cross for no on an AAC device, that’s not intuitive unless you’ve learned that these two symbols are used in our culture to represent those words. It’s an arbitrary convention. The same goes for an image of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for good and bad.

The question you should always ask when something is described as being “intuitive” is “What do I have to already know in order to do this?” You may be surprised at the amount of learning you’ve already had to go though in order to see this new thing as intuitive.

Donald Norman, in his very readable Living With Complexity (2011) [4] says that, “even activities that we like to call easy and ‘intuitive’ are actually complex, arbitrary, and difficult to master.” In the quest to make things instantly usable we are losing sight of something very, very critical; we still have to learn new things and these new things have to be taught. [5]

Whether you’re a parent, clinician, or teacher, you cannot be replaced by some magical intuitive system. Although there is no reason why we should not be designing systems to be easier to learn, we cannot forget that some learning will be necessary. We all want out lives to be simpler and easier, but sometimes there is no substitute from a little blood, toil, tears, and sweat [6].

[1] I recommend the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the primary source for all things etymological in English. My other recommendations are the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), the Merriam-Webster Third International Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition. For online resources, the Merriam-Webster is cool, and for language learners, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

[2] It’s says something about the attitudes of folks in the US versus those in the UK that the 99 Luftballons was released in the UK in English whereas it stayed in its native German for the Americans. I’m not exactly sure what it says but it seems significant!

[3] The examination of faeces for the purpose of diagnosis or divination (yup, you can tell the future by looking at a turd) is called scatomancy. Scatology is the study of shit, with scat being Greek for dung. The suffix -mancy means “divination by,” hence tephromancy (divination by ashes), catoptromancy (divination by using a mirror), and austromancy (divination by observing the winds.)

[4] Norman, D. (2011). Living With Complexity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[5] Just before I posted this piece, a colleague from Germany sent me a link to an article in the online edition of The Atlantic that talks about how using a dial phone was, initially, a non-intuitive process, and how people had to be taught how to do it. The article also includes a link to a wonderfully nostalgic black and white film called Dial Comes To Town. Well worth the watch! There’s also a quote from the article that’s worth repeating; “We forget how much of our interactions with technology, however ‘intuitive,’ are learned behaviors. For many the idea of needing to learn how to use the thermostat, the stove, the phone, or even a new piece of software seems absurd. We expect things to work, without having to work ourselves.” Which is precisely the point also made by Donald Norman.

[6] Although this phrase is typically associated with Sir Winston Churchill’s address to the British people at the beginning of World War II, it was apparently first used by the Italian politician Giuseppe Garibaldi back in 1849. Garibaldi also gave his name to a red women’s blouse, a hat,  a biscuit, a type of beard, and a fish!