Tag Archives: Speech Dudes

Countdown to Christmas Quiz: Question 5 – Thursday 5th December

What publication has research, human interest, and policy analysis for the CSD professions –  AND is about to get a shiny new website in January?

ANSWER: The ASHA Leader!

ASHA Leader publication

If you’re a member of ASHA, you get the ASHA Leader. And if you get the ASHA Leader, you’re dining on a smorgasbord of the whole “being an SLP and Audiologist” thing and not just the specialist, thin slices of premium goodness you get from journals. Although it’s relative new – the Dudes were around long before its debut in 1999 – it’s established itself as a part of the SLP community and now exists in both print and digital formats. Why, it’s even profiled the Dudes themselves in the “In The Limelight” piece called The Dudes Abide – so it has to be good!

Why not consider submitting an article to the Leader? There’s a link below and the editors are always on the look out for contributions in general. It is, after all, your publication!


About the Leader from the ASHA Leader website

Writing for the Leader: how to submit an article.

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 pulse.me 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 3 – Of Dining and Data

Today was a day of meetings. Fortunately, the first was at a delightful restaurant; the Thai Thani  on International Drive in Orlando. Being an Indian curry lover, I opted for the Curry Fried Rice with chicken, and wasn’t disappointed. One of the house specialities is a pineapple yellow fried rice curry with a choice of beef, chicken or pork, stir fried with raisins, cashews, and onions but I wanted something less fruity so I’ll save this special for another visit.

Thay Thani restaurant

Thai Thani Orlando

Following two more meetings, I did the first of my two joint-presentations. I usually fly solo – then there’s only me to blame of things go wrong – but this year I tried sharing. And this one was on one of my favorite topics: automated data collection and analysis with AAC devices. The content was similar to the presentation I gave at ASHA 2012 and which has already been documented in The Dudes Do ASHA 2012: Day 4, so feel free to click and read that.

What wasn’t discussed in that older post was the way on which the word data itself can tell us something about language change over time. So try this quick test – and don’t spend too long thinking about the answer:

Which is these statements is correct:

(a) The data is good.

(b) The data are good.

If you answered (b), then you are in the company of the good people at the  Oxford English Dictionary (and that’s not bad company to be in) and the hearts of die-hard grammatical prescriptivists [1].

But if you answered (a), then you are not that different from the population of the English-speaking world as a whole because the is and the are seem to be in free variation! If you take a look at the Corpus of Historical American English, you’ll see that in terms of frequency of use, they don’t seem to differ that much since the 1930’s, and you can make a case, I suppose, for arguing that the is-form has edged ahead of the are-form.

Take a look at these charts that track use since 1830.

The word data and the verb is

“The data is…”

Notice that “data is…” was being used at the turn of the century and peaked in the 1990’s. Compare that with the “data are…” instances:

The word Data and the word Are

The data are…

There are hardly any examples prior to the 1930’s and from the 1960’s onward, both is and are appear to be neck and neck in terms of usage.

So why does this happen? What is it that makes data such a tough word for folks to decide whether it should be used with is or are? The answer – or a t least part of it – is related to our understanding of whether a noun is a count noun or a mass noun.

For those saner readers who are less obsessed with language than this Dude, count nouns are – unsurprisingly! – those that can be counted. So dog, cat, shoe, table, boat, and cup, are all count nouns because we can talk about “three cups” or “five shoes” or “a room full of dogs.” With a count noun, you’re usually able to turn it into its plural form by adding an “s.”

On the other hand, a mass noun cannot be counted. Pork, education, furniture, and weather, cannot be used with a number or pluralized by adding an “s.” You don’t have “*three weathers” or “*a room full of furnitures.”

Data is one of those words that has become a mass noun, even though it was originally a count noun. And by “originally,” I mean going back to Latin, where the singular was datum and the plural was data. What often happens with foreign words that are imported into English is that we apply regular English rules to them. On that basis, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see datums – but it didn’t happen 😉

What appears to have happened is that the word data has become a synonym for information, and folks feel that if “the information is good” sounds OK, then so does “the data is good.”

Incidentally, there is a way to turn a countable noun into a mass noun by using a rather gruesome linguistic device called a “universal grinder [2].” Suppose that in a frantic effort to catch a bird that has found its way into your house, you cat leaps up into the air and accidentally hits a rapidly rotating heavy fan. Saddened by its untimely demise, you might, through your tragic sobs, explain to someone over the phone that, “There is cat all over the room.” In this situation, a regular count noun has suddenly transformed into a mass noun.

Kitten playing with a fan

Careful, Mr. Tibbles!

Equally, in certain circumstances, some mass nouns can take on the appearance of a count noun. Although water is typically a mass noun, you might be in a restaurant and remark  that, “there are four or five waters already on the table.” Needless to say, folks learning English have a bit of a struggle trying to learn the difference between them as the only rule seems to be that liquids and powders (amorphous items) tend to be mass nouns, and the rest are count.

The learning point from all this – and we’re trying to be recognized as an educational blog as well as providing entertainment – is that when we are evaluating someone’s ability to use language, it’s critical to be aware of the fact that sometimes the prescribed way of speaking may actually be in free variation with the popular way, and this is actually one of the ways in which language changes over time [3].

For the sake of completeness, the day ended with wine, pizza, beer (mass noun), and a cocktail before bed. Needless to say I fell asleep quickly.

[1] In the world of language mavens, there are constant arguments between prescriptivists, who take the line that there are “correct” ways to say things, and descriptivists, who say that so long as you can be understood, there ain’t no right and wrong.  Although I’m more often the prescriptivist boat, I’m happy to jump ship depending on my mood – and whether I want to just get into a bit of a row with someone just for the hell of it.

[2] The Universal Grinder is a linguistic thought experiment first written about by Francis Pelletier, who used it in a paper talking about the nature of count versus mass nouns. Pelletier didn’t use household pets and rotating blades as his examples but the Dudes feel more at home with Edgar Allan Poe as a role model than, say,  Noam Chomksy or Stephen Pinker.

Pelletier, F.  J. 1975. Non-Singular Reference: Some Preliminaries. Philosophia 5.

[3] A pretty comprehensive coverage of how and why languages change over time can be found in Larry Trask’s 2010 book Why Do Languages Change? For those who want the Dude notes, you can click on the following Dude Link to get the 38-page summary. Link to book summary

First Baby Step to Thinking of Evidence-Based Practice: Be Skeptical

At the recent 2012 conference of the International Society for AAC (ISAAC) there was some robust discussion about the technique know as facilitated communication. It’s a controversial technique and surprisingly one on which ISAAC does not have a position paper – which is an endeavor currently underway with a view to something being published soon. I say “surprisingly” because many other professional organizations have had position papers for many years, from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1993) through to the Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disability [1]. ASHA has had a statement since 1994, so it does seem a little tardy for the group whose raison d’être is AAC to be publishing a statement on an AAC technique. But never mind, at least there is action being taken, which is better than continuing to say nothing.

But this isn’t about the pros and cons of FC. It’s about the development of a mindset that allows people to think about FC – and Non-Oral Motor Speech Exercises, Equine Therapy, Canine Therapy, Sensory Integration, and other such debatable practices. The reason I started with the reference to FC was simply because during the discussion, one person actually said, “But there’s more to this than Science.”

Is there? Is there really? I can appreciate that things in the world can be difficult to measure, and that there are times when measurement seems unfeasible and even intractable, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

Handbook of EBP in Communication DisordersEvidence-based practice can be tough. When you get into the nitty-gritty of the scientific method – which is a big chunk of what EBP is about – it’s easy to get overwhelmed by talk of variables, pre-tests, post-tests, levels of confidence, skewed distributions, ANOVA, one- versus two-tailed hypothesis, Bayesian, Cartesian, and the whole catastrophe that is experimental design. Even the most readable of books, such as the excellent The Handbook for Evidence-Based Practice in Communication Disorders by Christine Dollaghan [2], can be hard to read and even more challenging to digest. The potential complexity of designing ways to measure clinical practice is, to put it bluntly, off-putting. When you have a caseload of 200 clients and only 24 hours in a day, the idea of setting up formal measurement procedures is about as welcome as a bacon sandwich at a Bar Mitzvah.

Nil desperandum! Like any other skill in life, becoming a more effective practitioner of EBP doesn’t require you to be an expert all at once. You can improve your practice simply by sharpening your mindset to be more in tune with the concepts of EBP. And the first thing you can learn to do is become a Skeptic.

First, let me shovel out of the way that huge mound of steaming objection that being a skeptic is just an excuse for rejecting everything and believing in nothing. That’s a cynic, or a nihilist. In a 2010 interview with Skeptically Thinking, philosopher and author Massimo Pigliucci [3] said;

I think that a crucial aspect of being skeptical, of engaging in critical thinking, is not the idea that you reject claims because they seem absurd. That’s not being a skeptic, that’s just being a cynic. It’s just denying things for the sake of denying it. The idea of skepticism is that you inquire — that you do the work.

“Doing the work” is obviously a tough one because in our world of Wikipedia and endless cable shows about ghost hunters, psychics, celebrity hauntings, and quick-fix psychology, it’s easy to let someone else do the work for you – and that work may be of stunningly poor quality and accuracy. However, a little “critical thinking” is not that hard.

So here are my Top Three Critical Questions to help you become a baby Skeptic. And feel free to be skeptical about whether my three are a good three!

1. If someone claims X causes Y because they did Z, can the claim be tested independently? If I tell you that I can stop an interdental lisp by pushing the tip of a client’s tongue with a wooden spoon, while simultaneously saying “go back, tongue, go back,” you’d be right to ask if anyone else can do it, and you may even try it yourself. But if I claim that the reason no-one else can do it is because they don’t have the same spoon, or that my intonation pattern is very specific, you’d also be right to call bullshit on me.

2. If someone claims X causes Y because they did Z, are there any other simpler explanations as to why Y may have happened? When TV ghost hunters use a drop in temperature to “prove” the presence of a ghost, could something simpler have caused it? When a child appears to speak more after an hour with a dolphin, was it actually the dolphin’s presence causing it or just that the kids was happy?

3. If someone claims X causes Y because they did Z, what change was actually measured and how? “My kid talks more to my therapy dog, so therapy dogs work.” More than what? More than if there was a cat? More than 6 months ago? More than when he walked in the door? I had a client many years ago who swore blind that his stammer was much better after a few pints of beer and he wondered if he could get a prescription! Although I never took the opportunity to spend a night out at the bar with him, his measure of “better” was that he felt he was more fluent. But after a few pints of ale, I’m not sure my client was particularly accurate in his measurement techniques.

Everythiing is Obvious book

Oddly enough, I’m not going to suggest you use your common sense because this can be less “common” and “sensible” than you might believe. A recent book by Duncan Watts takes the notion of common sense to task. In Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us, he argues that;

Common sense is “common” only to the extent that two people share sufficiently similar social and cultural experiences. Common sense, in other words, depends on what the sociologist Harry Collins calls collective tacit knowledge, meaning that it is encoded in the social norms, customs, and practices of the world.

Anyone who feels that common sense is in some sense the truth may want to spend at least 30 minutes listening to the discussions that go on in your country’s government, with folks in the US now facing 2 months of pre-election “common sense” being thrust down their throats. If sense were really that common, all parties in the political divides would cease to exist because their would only be one truth.

So common sense is less helpful in making evidence-based judgements than the basic science of testing and measuring. Even minimal measurement is better than no measurement because it gets you ever closer to an improved metric. You don’t have to subscribe to the “all or nothing” fallacy that some folks promote. Remember that there are different levels of measurement you can use, and each one has its pros and cons.

So let’s invent an example based on Dolphin Therapy. I can ask my client to tell me as much as possible about a picture of a busy street and record what is said, then repeat the task 5 minutes after spending a half-hour with a dolphin. If I simple count the number of words before and after the swim, then find the post-dolphin condition has twice as many words, is that a “good” measure? Well, the safest answers is “it’s a measure” but the notion of “goodness” is more complex. But here’s the valuable thing; you’ve at least created for yourself a methodology that you can use with the rest of your swimming clients. You can also do it again next time you client has another dolphin session. And the next.

Of course, don’t be surprised if someone else comes along and pokes holes in your methodology and results. The good news is you actually have some results to talk about, rather than a blanket statement about how “good for the kids” this dolphin fun is. Nor should you be surprised if someone uses the second question in my list to suggest an alternative explanation such as “the kid was just relaxed and would have done just as well if you’d given him a massage, or a bowl of ice-cream, or a flight in a helicopter.” This will help you go back and think of a better way to measure and test (or try to get a grant for “Helicopter Therapy” sponsored by folks who like flying in helicopters!) [3]

Enough for now. Once an article passes the 1500-word mark, it ceases to qualify as “baby steps.” So take those three critical questions and start trying them out. If you want some homework, try them out while watching a TV show about UFO’s or Bigfoot – it’s kinda fun.

[1] No, the “Victorian League” is not a group of steam-punk enthusiasts who yearn for a return to the values of the 19th century but an organization (VALID) based in the Australian state of Victoria, the capital of which is Melbourne.

[2] Dollaghan, C. A. (2007). A Handook of Evidence-Based Practice for Communication Disorders. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing. This is great book and if you wanted to buy just one reference for EBP, I’d go for thisl But be warned; it is so full of excellent one-liners and summaries that if you use a yellow highlighter, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up with a banana-colored book. I use sticky tags and I think I went though three packs of them! And if you don’t want to spend the money – and time – on the book, you can read Christine’s 2004 ASHA Leader article entitled Evidence-Based Practice: Myths and Realities.

[3] Often the people promoting the benefits of animal therapy are animal lovers who appear to want to somehow “prove” that there’s something special about their dog/cat/dolphin/horse/lizard/three-toed sloth/whippet etc. I have no doubt that research shows how stroking a cat can reduce your blood pressure temporarily, but I can get the same effect from drinking beer, riding my motorcycle, or having sex. However, unlike the animal therapy folks, I am not promoting Drunken Biker Orgy therapy, or DBO as it would be referred to in the academic literature. Which may turn out to be a spectacular loss of revenue for me as a future project…

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


 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…

[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.

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!

“Baby Happy, Baby Sad.” Words, phrases and clauses

I was fully intending to follow up the previous article on Guitarists called Steve with Captain Jack Sparrow and the Anchoring Bias but some recent Amazon shopping has resulted in my putting the pirates on hold. When I got back from the CSUN 2012 conference in San Diego last weekend,  my new set of board books written by Leslie Patricelli had arrived. For those unfamiliar with her work, she has a great web site at http://www.lesliepatricelli.com and I heartily recommend taking a peek. The site includes some cute little games, one of which, called Feed the Baby, allows you to try to test out “yummy” versus “yucky” things. Unsurprisingly, trying to feed a toilet roll to the baby is not “yummy,” but rest assured my grandson thought this was funny and worth getting wrong! iPad folks will have to be disappointed because the games are flash-based but if you are using an Android device, or a Windows-based tablet [1], you’re good to go.

The set I bought includes Baby Happy Baby Sad, Yummy Yucky, Quiet Loud, Big Little, and No No Yes Yes. Apart from the latter, they’re clearly focused on contrastive adjectives. Physically, they’re big enough and chunky enough for toddlers to pick up and open, with clear, simply, and whimsical images of a baby doings “things.”

Leslie Patricelli books

Leslie Patricelli books

So let’s take a look at one of these excellent offerings; Baby Happy, Baby Sad. Each facing page has a picture of the baby in a state of happiness or sadness with the text “Baby happy” or “Baby sad” with the image.

Pictures of sad and happy baby

Baby SAD baby HAPPY

What’s interesting about the vocabulary of the book is that it consists of three words; baby, happy, and sad. All are relatively high frequency items for young kids [2] and so good for teaching to youngsters with AAC needs. And with just these three words you can work at both phrase level and clause level language.

As Patricelli presents the words in written form, the two-word utterence is a likely representative for the sentence “The baby is happy” with a Subject + Complement clause and an assumed Verb missing.

Tree diagram for the baby is happy

The baby is happy

On the other hand, if you use the words “happy baby,” you’re now talking about a single Noun Phrase that’s a single clause element.

Tree diagram for the happy baby

The happy baby

It may seem like a small difference but you are able to use three words in two sequences to teach two different syntactic structures.

Another nice design feature of the books is that there is plenty of space to add picture prompts for clients using AAC devices. Here’s an example below where I added Pixon™ symbols [3] to the pages so that a kiddo could read along.

Using pixons with the Baby Happy Baby Sad book

Pixon-supported reading

You could, of course, use any symbol set you wanted, but it’s always best to focus on prompting for high frequency core words. As a bonus, the last two pages of the book add an extra words to the set: more. This is a very high frequency word – almost as core as it gets. It’s one of the 25 first words used by toddlers as found in the 2003 paper by Banajee, DiCarlo, and Strickland [4] and appears in all word lists [5].

If you’re working with folks who have some motor issues, there’s a cheap and easy way to adapt a board book for easier page turning; binder clips.

Binder clips

Binder clips

Depending on the size of the board book and your client’s hand, you can choose the clip size that best suits. Here’s an example of different-sized clips on my Baby Happy Baby Sad book:

Binder clips as page turners

Binder clip page turners

The wire handles on the clip can be removed if you only want to use one of them as the actual turning lever. The page below shows a clip with one of the handles removed.

Binder clip with handle removed

Clip wire removed

The clips, even without the wire handles, can keep the pages apart, leaving enough space for little fingers to be able to flip the page. You can also attach the clips at the top, side, or bottom of pages, so there’s some flexibility in how you adapt the book.

So, by printing out a few symbols and sticking them in the book, along with using binder clips if a client needs an adaptation, this one book can be used to teach core vocabulary, Adj+Noun phrases, and Subject-Complement clause structure. And that’s without adding the obvious word turn to the mix, incredibly useful if you want your client to direct others to do the physical page turning.

[1] I can’t resist mentioning that I’m currently playing with a special edition Samsung 12″ tablet running Windows 8 that delegates to the Windows 8 Developers Conference in August 2010 were given by those nice people at Microsoft. The accessibility features of Windows 8 were also highlighted at last week’s CSUN 2012 conference in San Diego, and you can check these out at this link: http://www.deaftechnews.com/2012/02/15/microsoft-introduces-new-accessibility-features-on-windows-8-video/

[2] They all appear in Raban, B. (1987). The spoken vocabulary of five-year old children.Reading,England: The Reading and Language Information Centre, and in Moe, A., Hopkins, C., & Rush, T. (1982). The vocabulary of first-grade children. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. Happy and sad are also a good pair of opposites that can be taught together. Sadly the Raban book is out of print but if you contact Bridie Raban directly at the University of Melbourne, she may be able to send you electronic information. If enough people ask, maybe she’ll publish it again as an eBook… 😉

[3] The Pixon™ Project Kit is available from the AAC Institute at http://www.aacinstitute.org/Resources/ProductsandServices/Pixons/index.html

[4] Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C. and Stricklin, C. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for Toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19, 2, 67-73.

[5] I’m taking a risk by making such a sweeping statement but all the lists I have to hand have more in them, so if anyone can cite a list that doesn’t include it as a “common word,” I’d love the reference.

Guitarists called “Steve” and the Confirmation Bias

Typically when I’m writing, I have my iPod plugged into the surround sound playing whatever I think matches my mood. On a bad day, anything by Nine Inch Nails works as an alternative to slitting my wrists or downing a bottle of Scotch, but on more mellow occasions, I’ll pick something like Steve Hackett, one of my all-time favorite guitarist, who became most well-known for his membership of the early incarnation of Genesis. But what caught my attention particularly this morning was how I also have music from other guitarist such as Steve Howe, a long-time member of the Prog band Yes; Steve Vai, the master of the seven-string guitar and a big buddy of David Lee Roth; Steve Hillage, a 70’s hippy icon who also dabbled in ambient music as a member of System 7, and Steve Winwood, who started off in the late 60’s with Blind Faith and went on to a solo career that continues up to today.

It didn’t take me long to add Steve Thorne to that list, another UK Prog-Rock crossover artist; Steve Rothery, the guitarist with Marillion; and Steve Miller or the Steve Miller band (Fly Like an Eagle). By allowing just a tiny bit of leeway, I can add Stephen Stills, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Steven Van Zandt.

Steve Thorne “Kings of Sin”

And these are just the ones I have on my iPod!

So, is there some magic mojo going on here? Is there something about being a “Steve” that predisposes you to being a good guitarist? Is that why I’m so piss poor at playing  (I’m not called Steve)? I bet if I sit down long enough I can start dragging up other twangers called Steve to add to my sample.

Or is this, like last week’s cinnamon bun, some sneaky little phenomenon that appears miraculous but will turn out to be mundane? Sadly, the answer is “yes.”

The first thing that’s going on here is something called the Confirmation Bias. This is one of a series of what are called cognitive biases, which are processes going on in the brain that distort our view of reality [1]. It’s nature’s way of keeping us permanently fooled. The dangerous thing about cognitive biases is that we are usually unaware of them, and in fact, will try our best to deny they even exist [2].

The confirmation bias is a tendency to look for, and incorporate, evidence to support a hypothesis, while simultaneously rejecting or ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It’s why flashlight-clutching Sasquatch believers still wander around at night in sub-zero temperatures to catch a glimpse – or preferably an autograph – or a mythical mountain man whose speculated existence hangs on the slimmest, flimsiest, weakest evidence than even a toddler could recognize as bogus. All one of these people needs is a rustle in the branches once every 16 years and “There it is… the S’quatch!”

So with my “Steve” phenomenon, what I have done is notice a small cluster of three or four Steve’s, sufficient to create a tentative hypothesis that “There is an abnormal number of guitarists called Steve,” and then support that hypothesis by finding a few other examples. Quod erat demonstrandum. Now hand me that Nobel Prize.

But not so fast, young Jedi. If there’s a confirmation bias going on here, we need to check my sample against a larger, more objective sample. Which is where Rolling Stone magazine comes in because they have, in fact, already created a Top 100 Guitarists of All Time list. And from that list, I created this frequency table of guitarist’s names that occurred more than once.

Steve 6
Dave/David 3
Jimmy 3
Mick/Mickey 3
Dick/Dickey 2
Eddie 2
Eric 2
James 2
Joe 2
John/Johnny 2
Michael 2
Neil/Neal 2
Scott/Scotty 2
Tony 2

Well look at that! Steve does, indeed, appear to be the big winner among guitarist names, so maybe there is some mysterious force at work. Perhaps the name “Steve” when uttered over and over again is like a magic spell that turns the listener into a brilliant guitarist. After all, you hear your own name much more than any other during your life.

There is, however, one more check we need to do. Although we have established that the name “Steve” appears to be the most popular name for guitar players, is this the same for non-guitar players? Could it be that Steve is just a very popular name and that, alone, will skew the “steviness” of our sample?

According to the 2005 U.S. Census, the name “Steve” is actually the 18th most frequent boys’ name. [3] The most common is “James,” and both these names are in our list. However, the Rolling Stones list has “James” and “Jimmy” as two separate groups whereas the Census would have them both as “James.” So if we add these together, we find our guitarists now have “Steve = 6” and “James = 5,” and that’s pretty much the same.

With James and Stephen being popular in the general population, seeing them as the top two in our player’s list is now not as mysterious. If I were to actually take the time to do some formal stats on matching the Rolling Stone Top 100 along with the 2005 Census, I’m betting we’d see a close correlation, but not enough variation to declare a miracle.

As a special treat, and a blast from the past, why not sit back for a couple of minutes to hear another Stephen from my iPod – Stephen Bishop.

[1] Here’s a link to a bucketload of biases. “Bucketload” is a statistical measure that’s less than a “shitload.” And a “shitload” is less than a “fuckload.” Although these are perfectly wonderful and expressive adjectives, students are recommended not to use them in formal essays and researchers should avoid them when submitting to a refereed journal. Some reviewers have no sense of humor.  http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

[2] A reasonably short and readable book that looks at how cognitive biases can shape our self-perception is the 2008 Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I’m tempted to also recommend Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the forerunner to his best-selling The Black Swan (2010), which is basically Fooled with a few extra chapters. Both of Taleb’s books are geared towards economic behavior but the cognitive biases are the same.

[3] If you’re thinking that just using the US Census is biased, you’re absolutely right! If I were wanting to publish this article on Steve’s in a journal, I’d have to look a number of different databases to create a more comprehensive “world” list. Half of my Steve’s are from the UK so I should use a UK database. However, as this is a blog post and not a refereed journal piece, I’m happy to take the criticism of weak design in my experiment by calling attention to it myself in this comment!

Is “Foreign Accent Syndrome” a Cinnamon Bun?

On October 15th, 1996, bakers at the Bongo Java Roasting Company were surprised to find that nestled among a tray full of fresh cinnamon buns was one pastry that looked uncannily like Mother Teresa. In fact, it was so uncanny that for some, it became miraculous; evidence that The Great Baker in the Sky was sending us messages to prove His existence.

Bun like Mother Teresa

Nun or bun?

Or was it?

What we can see going on here is the confluence of two effects: Patternicity, [1] a cognitive bias based on the tendency to see patterns when none exists, and the Law of Truly Large Numbers, which states that given really large samples sizes, weird things will happen.

The TLN thing can be dealt with pretty easily in this case. How many cinnamon buns do you think are baked on a single day at the Bongo Java House? Let’s assume 100, which is probably very conservative. What’re the odds that one of those might look a little like Mother Teresa? Probably unlikely.

But the Bongo Java House had been open since 1993, six days a week for 50 weeks a year, which gives us a bun total of 90,000 over a three-year period. So what are the odds that one of those might resemble Mother Teresa? Now it’s seeming a little more possible.

Now think about how many bakeries there are in the entire USA, churning out cinnamon buns by the bucketload for three years. The 2009 US Census said there are over 38,000 retail bakeries, and on that basis, we can  estimate that some 3,420,000,000 buns were made between 1993 and 1996. So, one more time – how likely do you think it is that one of those looked similar to Mother Teresa? Or Barack Obama? Or even yourself?

Given such huge numbers, it is almost inevitable that a Nun Bun will appear, and it only takes ONE person to spot one to make the miracle. Only it’s not really a miracle but a natural consequence of the law of Truly Large Numbers. [2]

Let’s go one step further with this. Suppose the media got a hold of this miraculous appearance of Mother Teresa (which they did) and suddenly told millions of people about it. Up until this point, no-one was expecting a Nun to pop up in their daily box of high-calorie pastries so no-one was really looking. But once you’ve heard about one Nun, folks will start looking for another. And given that there are millions of buns made every day, the odds of finding one are good.

Out of 3 billion buns over three years, do you think it likely that we could find, say, 10 such Nun Buns? Easily. Bear in mind that there’s also some flexibility built in to the notion of “resembling” or “looking like” Mother Teresa; the bun doesn’t have to be the spitting image but enough to garner consensus from a large group of observers that it’s a reasonable apporximation. So you’re not just looking for a single example of a bun that looks exactly like Mother Teresa but clusters of buns that have common features. Put another way, it’s not that we have one bun in 100 that looks just like Mother T, but 3 or 4 that “sort of” look like her. This increases the odds of finding miraculous munchies.

So here’s the big question: Given that we find 10 ersatz nuns out of our multi-million sample, can we now talk about a special “Mother Teresa effect?” Is there a mysterious force that creates Mother Teresa buns? Is this proof that the Great Baker in the Sky really exists?

Sadly, no. We’ve stacked the odds of finding the “Mother Teresa effect” by setting up what we want to find in advance. By defining what we’re looking for – a bun that looks like a specific nun – given an large enough pool of buns from which to draw our examples, we’ll find her. [3]

All of which brings us to the topic of Foreign Accent Syndrome. This is a rather dramatic pathology that has been defined as “a motor speech disorder in which patients develop a speech accent which is notably different from their premorbid habitual accent. [4]” Other researchers have suggested that there may be cases of FAS that are psychogenic in origin [5], may be a prosodic disorder [6], [7], or developmental in nature [8].

According to Akhlaghi, Jahangiri, Azarpazhooh, Elyasi, and Ghale (2011), “Most FAS cases reported so far have been due to a stroke involving lesions in different cortical and subcortical areas of the language dominant hemisphere (mainly left hemisphere). [9]”

Linguistically, a wide range of features have been reported as being significant in creating the “foreign sounding” nature of the speech. These include the reduction or simplification of consonant clusters, consonant or vowel deletion, consonantal changes of articulation, vowel changes of articulation, epenthesis or metathesis, and vowel diphthongization.

Such variability suggests that there is less of  syndrome going on here than we might want to believe. Rosenbek (1999) suggested that because many of the features of FAS are similar to those of a more general apraxia of speech (AoS), we should treat is as a subtype of this. Marien, Verhoeven, Engelborghs, Rooker, Pickut, and De Deyn (2006) note that, “research has neither been able to identify a coherent system in the speech errors nor to separate it unambiguously from AoS [10]. What seems more likely is that this is more of a cinnamon bun than a specific disorder. Back in 1996, Kurowski and Blumstein said of FAS:

Why then do we persist in seeking to characterize the phonetic characteristics of this disorder, its potential neuropathology, and its underlying mechanism, instead of concluding that the foreign accent syndrome is an epiphenomenon existing only in the “ears” of the beholder. [11]

In contrast, the same authors change their minds in a 2006 paper where they say that:

On the basis of consideration of the various case study reports in the literature and our own work, we have proposed that the foreign accent syndrome is properly considered a syndrome and that it is distinct in both its characteristics and underlying mechanism from an apraxia of speech, a dysarthria or an aphasic speech output disorder. We also proposed that the foreign accent syndrome is primarily a disorder of linguistic prosody. [12]

But this doesn’t convince me. Like the Nun Bun, the condition is predefined; it’s “any example of a general motor problem that sounds like a foreign accent.” Given the many, many ways an apraxia could present, a small cluster will indeed sound similar to some other language. And studies suggest that when you ask naive listeners to identify a specific language, they tend to be less than accurate; they can, at best, simply say, “it sounds foreign as opposed to just unintelligible.”

And statistically, like the Nun Bun, we are talking about some 60 cases in refereed journals since 1947 [7] among many other cases of AoS where the client has NOT been described as having a foreign accent. Patternicity and Truly Large Numbers can explain the phenomenon without the need to propose some special etiology or feature set. In terms of therapy, it’s unlikely that one would take a fundamentally different approach to intervening with a client who “has” FAS as opposed to someone identified as having apraxic symptoms.

Foreign accent syndrome may make for good TV and catch the ears of the media at large, but there’s still limited evidence that it deserves, or needs, to be a special syndrome.


[1] I talked about this in an earlier post with a review of Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. Other words to describe this phenomenon of finding patterns when none exists are apophenia and the clustering illusion.

[2] “Miracles” frequently turn out to examples of the human tendency to count the hits and ignore the misses i.e. to ignore the fact that when very, very large numbers are involved, weird things can occur. A 2010 plane crash in Libya killed 103 people but one child survived. Although the media was quick to call him the “miracle” child, the other 103 people clearly didn’t get to partake of the same luck. And those people who claimed to have dreamed about the crash the night before it happened weren’t compared with all the people in the world who have ever dreamed about a crash that didn’t happen.

[3] Some of you may be reminded of the story that if you have an infinite number of monkeys typing letters at random, you’ll eventually end up with a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Law of Truly Large Numbers says that you don’t have to have an infinite number of monkeys but just lots of them and a large amount of time.

[4] Verhoeven, J. and Marien, P. (2006). Neurogenic foreign accent syndrome: Articulatory setting, segments and prosody in a Dutch speaker. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 23, 599-614.

[5] Verhoeven, J., Mariën, P., Engelborghs, S., D’Haenen, H. and De Deyn, P. P. (2005). A foreign speech accent in a case of conversion disorder. Behavioural Neurology, 16, 225-232.

[6] Haley, K.L., Roth, H.L., Helm-Estabrooks, N. and Thiessen, A. (2010). Foreign accent syndrome due to conversion disorder: Phonetic analyses and clinical course.  Journal of Neurolinguistics, 23, 28-43.

[7] Haley, K.L. (2009). Dysprosody and Foreign Accent Syndrome. Perspectives on Neurophysiology and Neurogenic Speech and Language Disorders, 19, 3, 90-96.

[8] Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Wackenier, P., Engelborghs, S. and De Deyn, P. P. (2009). Foreign accent syndrome as a developmental motor speech disorder. Cortex, 45, 870-878.

[9] Akhlaghi, A.,  Jahangiri, N., Azarpazhooh, M.R., Elyasi, M. and Ghale, M. (2011). Foreign Accent Syndrome: Neurolinguistic Description of a New Case. In Proceedings of 2011 International Conference on language, literature and linguistics. Dubai, UAE.

[10] Mariën, P., Verhoeven, J., Engelborghs, S., Rooker, S., Pickut, B.A. and De Deyn, P. P. (2006). A role for the cerebellum in motor speech planning: Evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 108, 518-522.

[11] Kurowski, K.M. and Blumstein, S.E. (1996). Foreign Accent Syndrome: A Reconsideration. Brain and Language, 54, 1-25.

[12] Blumstein, S.E. and Kurowski, K. (2006). The foreign accent syndrome: A perspective. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 19, 346-355.

Geek or Nerd? There is a difference

Back in 1984, the Computer Era was in full swing. It was a year when a slew of new words entered the Oxford English Dictionary, all devoted to computerese. Habitual users of the Internet became Netheads [1] and netizens[2]; people were talking about WIMPs [3] as alternatives to command line input; some folks were discovering that a computer virus [4] could cause a fuckload of trouble [5]; yuppies [6] were discovering the Vodafone [7]; and people with an obsessive interest in computers became geeks.



In this sense of the word, the first written example is traced back to a Usenet group on February 20th, 1984, in a little couplet;

I was a lonely young computer geek,
With a program due most every week.

However, by the middle of the 90’s, it was being used in some cases as a synonym for nerd. Technology writer Rudy Rucker wrote;

Geek is the proud, insider term for nerd. If you are not a dedicated techie, don’t use this word.

Notice how he suggests that geek and nerd are synonymous but also asserts its status as a “techie” word. This continued into the early 21st century, as exemplified by an article in the UK’s Independent newspaper on June 4th, 2001;

We’re the nerds, the geeks, the dweebs: the men and women who can spend 20 hours straight contemplating 600 bytes of obscure, arcane, impenetrable computer code.

Now we have dweebs [9] added to the mix, but there is still the link to computer and software being made.

Geek mat

Get it? Then you're a geek!

Yet although most people understand geek as an American slang word for technophiles, computer hobbyists, and software developers, it’s also a regional dialect word from the north of England, used to describe;

A person, a fellow, esp. one who is regarded as foolish, offensive, worthless, etc. (OED)

Although its first recorded use is in a dictionary of northern slang dated 1876, it made its way across the Atlantic and to the West Coast, where an edition of the San Francisco Examiner on 28th April, 1908 we find;

 A geek who spends his spare time making Czar removers was slammed into the city cooler.

The meaning began to change during the first half of the 20th century such that by the 1950’s it had also come to be used to refer to “an overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit. (OED)” This definition is actually edging real close to that of a nerd.

So what then is a nerd, as opposed to a geek? Although there appears to be some interchangeability going on, the modern distinction is that a nerd is;

A person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication. (OED)

This is a more general definition than that of a geek, and indeed, it could be argues that a geek is a type of nerd, except that the “obsessive or exclusive dedication” is to computers and technology. However, it would be inaccurate to call someone who is, say, totally fascinated with etymology to the extent that they write about it every day as a geek, but they would mist assuredly be well suited to the title of nerd. [10]

Sheldon from Big Bang Theory


The origin of nerd is still disputed and unlikely to be ever settled with any certainty. One popular notion is that it came from an animal in the book If I Ran The Zoo by Dr. Seuss – a  small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.  More scatologically, another suggestion is that it is a euphemism for turd, but there is little supporting evidence, and it seems a very big stretch to somehow change the meaning of turd to nerd. Finally, one other etymythology is that it’s backward slang for drunk (“knurd”). I’d love this one to be true but again, it seems rather spurious and too good to be true; and in etymology, if an explanation seems “too good to be true,” it’s likely to be false!


The original nerd

The Dr. Seussian hypothesis at least has a better chance of being the origin. If I Ran The Zoo came out in 1950 and the first recorded use of nerd outside that book is noted by the OED as in the October 28th edition of Newsweek in 1951;

In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.

So the conclusion to all this is that if you are knowledgeable and obsessed with computers and technology, you’re a geek, and if you’re knowledgeable and obsessed with trains, stamps, 19th century Romantic paintings, or etymology, you’re a nerd. Realistically, you’re probably somewhere along a continuum from geek to nerd but wherever you are on the spectrum, rest assured you’re not alone.

[1] From the net.women Usenet group, 26th November: “So, how about it, netheads?”

[2] From the net.followup Usenet group, April 10th: “For all you netizens who can’t appreciate a joke for its humor and must debate its theme.”

[3] Acronym for “Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers.” These were first developed at Xerox PARC in 1973, and became the standard means of operating Apple and Microsoft computers.

[4] In Finch and Dougall’s Computer Security (1984) they wrote, “We define a computer ‘virus’ as a program that can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself.”

[5] Modeled after truckload (1862) and shitload (1954), it appeared in an essay by Richard Meltzer where he wrote, ” I was struck by the fuckload of inner capacities the guy was perceptibly calling on.” Notice that even rock journalists are not immune from ending a sentence with a preposition.

[6] Another acronym, this time for “young, urban professional.” It appeared in a 1984 book by Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley called The Yuppie Handbook.

[7] Vodafone is a proprietary name for one of the first mobile phone networks that began springing up in the early 80’s. The word was used generically to describe any cellular phone.

[8] For the sake of completeness, and a gratuitous appeal to prurience, the word geek was also used as slang to mean, “A performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts, such as biting the head off a live animal.” Ozzy Osbourne was clearly not the first to bite the head of a live bat and was simply following an old American tradition for circus performers!

[9] Along with dweeb (1982), the word dork seems to be part of this family of words. Dork was first recorded in 1964 in an article in the American Journal of Speech as being slang for “penis,” a variation on dirk or dick and by 1972 it had become more generalized to refer to a stupid or contemptable person; in the same way you’d call someone a dick. Dweeb is thought to be derived from a possible blending of dwarf and feeb – the latter being slang for a “feeble-minded.”

[10] Using a sample size of one, I can attest to this being accurate based on my daughter regularly accusing me of being a nerd. She notes that I certainly have geeky tendencies, but fundamentally, she reckons I am a language nerd and the tech stuff is just a tool that lets me express and indulge my nerdiness. I won’t argue with her because she is, of course, absolutely right.