Tag Archives: speech therapy

Countdown to Christmas Quiz: Question 6 – Friday 6th December

Another chemistry question! What is the name of the dry, white, chalky chemical that is used in assessment because of how it reacts to  X-rays?


The words barium, isobar, and baritone all come from the same Greek word, barus (βαρύς), which means “heavy.” When mixed to form barium sulfate, the chemical “heaviness” comes in very useful because you can drink it and let it coat your innards, but X-rays cannot pass through the barium. So you get to see diseased and damaged areas. And more good news – barium doesn’t dissolve in water so it cannot get into the blood stream. Therefore it works its way through the body and gets flushed out harmlessly.

barium sulfate

Barium sulfate


All about Barium from the Chemistry Explained site.
Videofluoroscopy information from ASHA.

“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.

The Dudes Do ATIA Orlando 2012: Day 4. Of Accessibility and Amicability

The last day of any conference is always something of a crap shoot from a presenter’s point of view. If the conference finishes at noon, you can be sure than a chunk of folks are not going to attend sessions because they want to be getting home the same day, so early flights out are popular. There’s also the chance – and I have no stats to support this – that if the previous night was the “last night” for people, some of them may well be trading in a late night for a sleepy morning, and so an 8:00 a.m. session is not on the cards for those folks.

Which is why it’s always heartening to see folks turn up for your presentation on the last day. [1] And why Cathy Hoesterey was gracious enough to thank all of us who attended her session on AIM Beyond the Classroom: Options for Accessible Books. Cathy is an OT and assistive technology specialist at Bellevue Schools in Washington. She taught UDL for AP Institute and guest lectures at University of Washington in Rehab Medicine. In short, she knows her stuff.


Books, books, books

The growth in digital media distribution has made it potentially much easier for students to have access to books in a variety of formats over and above the traditional paper. But there are now so many different formats and standards available that this in itself presents challenges. According to Cathy, the challenge for educators is to be aware of and comfortable with this range of choices for digital access. So she uses the acronym TIME to help outline the key aims of what we should be looking for:

Technology: What are the best tools and technology for providing accessible materials?
Instruction: How do you provide instruction and support implementation?
Materials: How do you acquire and distribute accessible materials?
Engagement: How do you engage reluctant students or teachers?

Belleville School District provides access to Freedom Scientific’s WYNN and Test Talker software via a central server. By working with the company to establish a licensing agreement on use, they can provide 50 access points simultaneously across the district, making it easier to administer and simpler for local schools to have access. They even provide students with the opportunity to use the software on their home computers by using a “Security Key” version; the software resides on a USB drive and can run from it on a home computer.

Cathy also makes use of online facilities to provide instruction for people who will be supporting students with access needs. Educators can sign up at a special website to attend live online trainings on different topics. She also recommends the use of LiveBinders, another online resource, which allows someone to post and share training materials.

This overlaps with materials as a topic in itself. With many publishers now offering books in a variety of formats, students can have access to complete libraries of reading material. Citing Bookshare as one example, she said that many thousands of books are free for use within software such as Don Johnston’s [2] READ: Outloud, Humanware’s Victor Reader, and the versatile WYNN from Freedom Scientific. [3]

New technologies, such as tablets, can offer engagement through new features. On tablets and eReaders, the simple ability to “flip” a page by flicking the screen can be more interesting than clicking a button. Being able to embed moving images, sounds, and hyperlinks, can result in eBooks that go beyond the print alone.

Portable word processors such as the Fusion and the Forte can be useful for clients for whom engagement becomes distraction – where it becomes too easy to drift off task and end up focusing on the wrong things. These can be used to encourage attention to text. And for non-readers, we shouldn’t forget audio books, which can be accessed by any type of MP3 player (provided you have the audio file in MP3 format and not some proprietary one, such as Apple’s AAC format). A source she cites for obtaining thousands of audio books is Books Should Be Free [4].

We’ve added her two-page summary handout to the Dudes’ Box account, and this contains some great links to other sources. You can also follow Cathy on Twitter as @ATtips and one her blog, Accessible Technology Tips.

I missed the presentation by fellow #slpeeps member, Sean Sweeney, entitled Links To Content! Mining the Interactive Web for Content Access. [5] Rather than post his notes, we encourage you to take a trip to his excellent blog and read his own account, along with his link to the handouts.

Mining the Interactive Web for Content Access: The Sean Sweeney

With the conference officially over, I’m staying over until Wednesday for a research meeting and Dude 2 (Dude 3 was not, alas, able to come) is spending a few days with family.

And a shout out to Stacy, or @sugarytweet, who is now a follower of the Dudes and an AT specialist in Houston, a newbie to ATIA, and Brooke, or @itaalk, a mom with a mission “giving kids with autism a voice – one iPad at a time.” You can check out her site at www.itaalk.org. It’s always great to get the chance to meet fun, new people at conferences!

[1] Some years ago at a conference for the Rehabilitation and Engineering Society of North America (RESNA), I clearly drew the short straw by having the 8:00 a.m. slot on the last Saturday, which was not made any more palatable by the fact that I was presenting on the subject of iconic algebra and logical operations as design criteria in designing AAC interfaces. Normally for these sessions you have to at least include the words “free’ and “beer” to get people to even consider stumbling in. Luckily, a handful of die-hards (engineers, I think, rather than speechies) did turn up, making me feel much better, and giving me an appreciation for the challenges those “last day presenters” have to deal with.

[2] I continue to make the mistake of saying “Don Johnson” instead of “Don Johnston,” which is odd because the genial and bespectacled Don Johnston looks nothing like the 80’s Miami Vice T-shirted Don Johnson.

Don Johnstone and Don Johnson

Don and Don

[3] Here’s a link to Bookshare’s list of compatible readers, some of which are free. http://www.bookshare.org/_/help/readingTools

[4] This is not the typical view of writers who would actually like to make some money from their books. For every John Grisham who gets thousands of dollars in advance for his books, there are many more writers who would just like enough to pay the rent, and $9.99 on Amazon doesn’t seem too outrageous to me. However, we live in a world of rampant consumerism where we all want stuff for free and don’t care about the folks who actually created that stuff. As I’ve said before, a “free app” is not a “free app,” and every time you get a “freebie,” the author gets nothing. Soapbox over.

[5] I suggested that we refer to Sean as “The Sean Sweeney” in order to distinguish him from his doppelganger, the “other” Sean Sweeney who, to add to complexity, also presented at ATIA.

The Dudes Do ATIA Orlando 2012: Day 3. Of Data and Describbling

The great thing about starting a day on a bad note is that usually, it can only get better. This morning’s “bad note” was to make a pot of coffee using the water from the faucet in the hotel room. Big mistake. Huge. I’m pretty convinced that all hotels have special filters installed that turn perfectly acceptable water into something that tastes as if it’s just dripped off an industrial sludge compactor, and to which is added a selection of chemical cleaners that are banned by the United Nations. Call me cynical, but the fact that they also strategically place bottles of water right next to the faucet  and charge more than a cost of gas. Seriously, $5.00 for 1/2 gallon of water. This also explains why the “water-powered car” has yet to be invented – it’d be too expensive to run!

Bad coffee face

Must... try... to... swallow...

After at least two mouthfuls of the warm, brown liquid that was clinging hopefully to the side of my cup, I decided to use it to descale the sink and poured it down the drain. There! Better now.

The day did, indeed, improve because I’d managed to schedule more sessions than meetings, so I had the pleasure of sitting back to listen to presenters and describbling notes in my notebook.

Describble is a real word, even though my spell checker disagrees. Honestly. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, and that, for me, is a working definition of “real” as far as words are concerned. [1] It is, however, not a particularly popular or well-used item. In fact, it is credited as being a nonce word. And for those for whom nonce is new, it means “a word apparently used only ‘for the nonce’, i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer’s works.” [2]

Geeky as I may sometimes seem to be (although technically I’m more of a nerd than a geek) I still find that my favorite piece of technology for a conference is a pen and a notebook. I can still write faster than I can type or swype, and there’s also something vaguely satisfying about seeing brown ink dry quickly on cream paper, watching the light momentarily flash off of the wet blaze as you describble quickly across the parchment.

Notebook and pen

Low-tech "tablet" or "notebook"

And I describbled a lot at the presentation by Deborah Witkowski entitled Data Collection in AAC: Gathering Performance and Outcomes Evidence. Debbie talked about the difference between standardized evaluations and profiles/inventories, and how it makes sense to be eclectic in your choices. In AAC, she stressed that “measurement” is not just counting words but looking at access, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. She also encouraged people to do two basic things before implementing any therapeutic intervention; (a) take a baseline measure and (b) determine you measure of success. This may seem obvious but once of the current issues with the iApp approach to AAC is that there is little to no data being collected. The “baseline” is typically “we downloaded this app” and the measure of success is “Bob is now communicating” but with NO specification as to what “communicating” is; and I have seen YouTube videos where folks push the iPad against the child’s hand and say “Look, he said it!”[3]

Debbie provided her slides as a PDF so we have them available for you at the Speech Dudes Box account:

Witokowski 2012 Data Collection in AAC

Today was an 8:00 to 5:00 day, which is not different from a normal day, but somehow at a conference, by the end of several sessions, you feel a little drained. Sitting down and listening seems like an easy thing to do but oddly it uses energy. Well, something must be using up energy because by the time I was back at my room around 5:45 p.m. I was pretty much ready for a nap. Or maybe I’m just old.

…but not too old. By 7:00 p.m. I was revitalized and ready to eat, although not ready to take a long trip somewhere. So, we went to the hotel’s Tropicale restaurant for a delicious Shrimp Bisque, followed by a Seafood Pasta, generously loaded with chunks of salmon, swordfish, scallops, and crab claws, all washed down with ice-cold, lime stuffed Coronas. On the way back, we called in at our friends’ villa and spent the rest to the evening chatting, laughing, and helping to clear the refrigerator of beer.

I’d forgotten all about the morning coffee.

[1] I’m also one of those who recommends the Urban Dictionary as a source for current slang and entertainment, but a word’s presence in the UD doesn’t classify it yet as a “real” word for me – more of a “hopeful monster” ready for being tested against lexical natural selection.

[2] It’s also been used more recently (since the 1970’s) to mean a sexual pervert, particularly a child molester. It may derive from the earlier nance or nancy, a word to describe a homosexual male, which in turn comes from 19th century slang for buttocks. Once again, the Dudes have access to facts you didn’t even know you wanted to know!

[3] There’s a whole minefield of issues out there with regard to “over-the-counter” AAC, where parents skip any evaluation of their child and use YouTube, iTunes, and “the nice man at Best Buy” to decide what app is best. One step toward improving the situation is to determine measures of performance, preferably built into apps. Of course, many app “designers” won’t want this because measurement not only shows success but also failure. The importance attached to success makes us loath to see failure as a critical measure; and knowing something is NOT working is as valuable as knowing it is.

The Dudes Do ATIA Orlando 2012: Day 2. Of Thinking and Hiding

I’m not fond of business meetings in general but the exception is having them over breakfast. My usual start to the day is typically a cup of tea and then copious amounts of coffee until dinner. Yes, I know that’s bad and I’ll probably die at 50 but it just happens to be the way I roll. But when I’m at conferences and have to take part in meetings, they’re much more digestible with some food.

Tropicale Restaurant

The Tropicale

The Caribe Royale has a splendid eatery called The Tropicále where you can part with large amounts of money for a large amount of food in the form of the enormous breakfast buffet. I say “large amounts of money” only insofar as for some folks $15 for breakfast may be a lit of money, but when you consider that you can create a small Vesuvius of morning comestibles from a list of offerings that includes eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, fruit, pastries, waffles, breads, and many others, $15 starts to look like a good deal.

So I order an English muffin and a pot of tea.

evert-Jan HoogerwerfThe fun presentation of the day (apart from my own, of course), was given by Evert-Jan Hooferwerf from AIAS Bologna in Italy talking about the TOBI [1]Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Project and the need to include all stakeholders in BCI research.

Now despite excited news reports that promise something akin to mental telepathy and the promise of your coffee machine making you an espresso just because you’re thinking, ‘Mmmh, I could just go for a delicious cappuccino,” that world of brain control is still quite a way off. In fact, current brain control requires a lot of effort for limited output. And in relation to communicating via a BCI system, it’s currently possible but takes a tremendous amount of concentration and effort.

A popular [2] form of BCI communication currently in use is referred to as the P300 system, where a client where a bundle of electrodes on the head and looks at a grid of letters through which a flashing light scans. By focusing on a target letter (such as an “h” to start spelling “hello”) the flash of the “H” on the screen stimulates the brain to release a signal – specifically the P300 wave – and an array of technology and software reacts as if to say, “Ooh, I think you were looking at an “H” – let’s try that again.” After a number of passes and flashes of the onscreen “H,” the system has seen enough P300’s to assume you are thinking of the “H” and pops it onto the screen. Now look at the “E” and off we go again.

The video above gives an idea of how a BCI P300 system works. Bear in mind that currently you have to reapply contact glue to all the electrodes after a couple of hours – so not exactly the sort of “out-of-box” product you can get from Best Buy.

Still, the good news it that there is research going on this area. Sitting in the audience at Hooferwerf’s presentation was Melanie Fried-Oken, who, along with her colleagues at the Oregon Health and Science University, has been investigating the application of BCI technology with folks with locked-in syndrome. [3]

Hooferwerf also talked about the importance of User-Centered Design, which is defined as “an approach that supports the entire development process with user-centred activities, in order to create applications which are easy to use and are of added value to the intended users.” [4] He then listed six principles of User Centered Design:

1) Include a clear understanding of user’s tasks and environmental requirements.
2) Encourage an early and active involvement of users.
3) Be driven and refined by user centred evaluation.
4) Iterate developmental stages for identification of optimal design solutions.
5) Incorporate the whole user experience.
6) Encourage multi-disciplinary design.

He also talked about the notion of “Living Labs,” which he defined as;

a permanent’ community of users who are iteratively asked to become integrated in some stages of the design/development/validation and marketing process and whose feedback is collected by means of various socio-ethnographic research methods (focus groups, surveys, testing, polls, etc.)

As an example of a Living Lab in action, he pointed to that of MIT;
MIT Living Labs brings together interdisciplinary experts to develop, deploy, and test – in actual living environments – new technologies and strategies for design that respond to this changing world. Our work spans in scale from the personal to the urban, and addresses challenges related to health, energy, and creativity.[5]

The session was scheduled for an hour but the content was much greater than that. So to make life a little easier for you, dear reader, here’s a link to the slides at the Dudes Box account.

By the time the day was done, we were ready for some rest and relaxation, which took the form of a trip to Johnnie’s Hideaway, a swanky restaurant that serves aged steak. No, this isn’t steak that past its sell-by date but meat that has been hung to dry at near-freezing temperatures for a few weeks. The effect of this process is to evaporate moisture from the muscle, promoting a greater concentration of beef flavor and taste. Then the beef’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, leading to a more tender slab of beef. Vegetarians may now unscrew their faces and weep for the cow.

Being the sort of dudes for whom no food is real food unless it has had blood coursing though its veins at some point, we opted for steaks. More specifically (and vegetarians should skip to the next paragraph) a thick, bloody strip steak with a crusty exterior, and a medium-rare filet mignon with a topping of crab and lobster. Oh happy day!

I finished off with a cappuccino that was the size of a small car, completely ignoring the sinfully wicked desserts that I could have probably used to coat the inside of my arteries directly.



However, it’s not enough to stop me from sleeping, and tomorrow is another day…

There was some confusion between TOBI and TOBII since both organizations are here at ATIA. TOBI is the Tools for Brain-Computer Interaction project, a European consortium funded by the EU and involving a network of universities; TOBII is a Swedish company that specialises in eye-tracking technologies and also has a division that builds AAC devices. The extra “I” makes all the difference.

[2] Popular as in “among people in the BCI field” rather than popular as in “most common cheese in the world.” There are other BCI inputs but the P300 is the one used for communication – or at least to investigate communication.

[3] Kenneth Hild, Umut Orhan, Deniz Erdogmus, Brian Roark, Barry Oken, Shalini Purwar, Hooman Nezamfar and Melanie Fried-Oken. 2011. An ERP-based Brain-Computer Interface for text entry using Rapid Serial Visual Presentation and Language Modeling. In Proceedings of the ACL-HLT 2011 System Demonstrations, pp. 38-43.

[4] Usability New website, Overview of the User Centred Design Process.

[5] MIT Living Lab Site: http://livinglabs.mit.edu

The Dudes Do ATIA Orlando 2012: Day 1. Of Cold and Heat and Things to Eat

It’s always noticeable when you start a day in the dark at 30F and end in the sunshine at 75F. Of course, traveling from the north-east of the US to Orlando, Florida, makes this easier. And as I write, I’m listening to Donald Fagen’s classic I.G.Y. from one of my most played albums, The Nightfly. [1]

The Caribe Royale Hotel and Conference Center is home to the Assistive Technology Industry Association’s (ATIA) 2012 conference, where the technorati glitterati strut their funky stuff and network with old friends, new friends, and alligators. Well, perhaps not alligators although it’s rumored that occasionally a toothy, embryonic handbag will waddle close to the fringes of the hotel, startling visitors and prompting them to make a trip to the nearby Orlando Premium Outlets to stop by the Coach or Dooney & Bourke stores.

Caribe Royale

Caribe pool and bar

Luckily for the dudes, the walk from the bar to registration avoided the Everglades and the only dangerous creatures to avoid was the guy in the rental car who hadn’t quite got the hang of where the brake pedal was (it’s the one that isn’t the gas pedal, asshole!)

The signing-in process was stunningly easy, requiring you to either scan the barcode of your e-mailed registration (which we’d left in our rooms) or to type in your surname and first three letters of you first. Only the first three! Good news for those of us who are aging a little and find counting to four something of a challenge.

The only teeny tiny flaw was that I had to ask for my “Presenter” ribbon. This, as seasoned conferencees will know, is an absolutely critical facet of life i.e. the more ribbons you can accumulate, the better! A friend of mine one year managed to stack six in a line, presenting a veritable rainbow of credentials. The more ribbons you have, the more of a “somebody” you are. Allegedly. Wandering around with just a plain badge that has “Attendee” printed on the paper pretty much marks you out as a noob and are not allowed to make eye contact with the be-ribboned luminaries. [2]

Caribe Conference Center

Today was the day of pre-sessions for those keen and eager souls who want to make the most of their time in sunny climes. However, the dudes are not signed up for any of these so, alas, we can’t report back on the content and learning objectives.

However, we can report that we were successful in finding a liquor store in order to stock up the refrigerator with bourbon and rum and beer. I hasten to add that we don’t intend to drink all this on our own (there are two of us here) but share it with a few friends during the week. We’re staying here for meetings after the conference so the aim is to just make sure we can “entertain” folks.

We must also applaud the single-mindedness of the two therapists from Chicago who I met on the shuttle to the hotel. Their plan was to be by the pool within 30 minutes of stepping off the bus and, to their credit, they were! Now that’s the conference commitment we like to see 😉

We were intending to settle in for a relaxed evening, watching the sun go down from a 5th floor balcony, sipping cocktails and gradually falling asleep in wicker chairs, only to wake at 3:00 in the morning with checkerboard asses. But we ended up in the exhibit hall for the last 40 minutes of the opening, doing a quick tour of the place to get our bearings and say hello to the folks we know.

At 7:35, exhibitors and attendees were ushered out for the evening, with the promise that we could all come back tomorrow at 10:15 a.m. Yes, that’s 10:15 – one of the very civilised aspects of ATIA is that it is exhibitor friendly and allows for folks to get a good night’s drinking sleep before the busy day ahead. Sadly for presenters, the sessions start at 8:00 a.m., which means no lazy morning starts with a leisurely hour or two sipping coffee by the pool.

To end the day, the we headed out to Dakshin, an Indian restaurant that we’d seen a few doors down from th liquor store earlier. [3] See, searching for alcohol can have wonderful and unexpected side benefits. For folks interested in Indian cuisine, we started with Wada Sambar, fried rice and lentil patties, along with Fish Cutlets, shallow pan-fried spiced fish cakes, then followed up with Kottyayam Fish Curry, swordfish with a pungent tamarind-flavored sauce, and Tikhut Kombdichi, chunks of chicken breast in a coriander and black pepper tomato-based sauce. Needless to say, we cleaned our plates – or should we say large, metal tray with dishes in them. Surprisingly, we went non-alcoholic on the drinks with a mint soda and mango lassi (a delicious mango and yogurt drink that sometimes is so thick you need an industrial vacuum to suck it up the straw!)

Dakshin Indian Restaurant

Dakshin food

The day is done. It’s after 10:00 p.m. yet below us folks are swimming in the pool and we’re sitting in shorts and T-shirts breathing in the still-warm air that actually contains a hint of humidity; something we north-easters haven’t experienced since last summer. Tomorrow the sessions start and the next post may be more educational.


[1] Strictly speaking, I’m listening to the Howard Jones version released in 1993 and appearing on his Greatest Hits album. Fagen’s The Nightfly is one of those must-have albums for anyone who aspires to being musically eclectic. It was released in 1972 and is a magical today as it ever was. And there’s nothing like driving through the night down California’s Pacific Coast Highway from Malibu to Santa Monica with Donald Fagen as a musical companion.

[2] Back in the UK, it would be customary for a man to tap doff his flat cap and say something along the lines of “beg pardon, guvnor!” and for a lady to curtsy slightly and simply say “Ma’am” and look down. Ah, those were the days!

[3] Dakshin is an old Sanskrit word meaning “south,” so the restaurant specializes in southern Indian cuisine. For completion, uttar means “north,” paschim means “west,” and poorva is “east.”

Peter Cook – A Biography; Book Review

My New Year target of writing 2,500 words per week on things other than work-related items has been put under pressure by my equally important desire to read as much as I can. I haven’t set a target for this year, if only because I beat last year’s one-a-week by 14 books, which, for the math challenged, meant I read 66 books in the year. There is no way to maintain that AND write some 500 words per day (with the weekend off) so I’m just going to accept “a lot” and leave it at that. Over at the Slowdog blog, fellow reader and beer drinker Adam Slota has set his target at 30 books, which sounds to me like a really good, achievable target – especially if you let yourself read whatever you like.

But with only 24 hours in a day and a requirement to sleep at least 5 of those, if I’m reading I’m not writing, and if I’m writing I’m not reading. And over the past few weeks I’ve been not writing while ambling through Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson.

Peter Cook biography cover

Peter Cook: A Biography

Cook, who died in 1995 just a few months before I left the UK to move to the US, was an iconic and inspirational comedian, best known for his collaborative work with his life-long friend, Dudley Moore. Moore is much more well-known to Americans as a comedic actor in films such as 10 and Arthur, but Cook is much more of a British flavor. [1]

It’s always hard to write about biographies because they are inevitably very personal in the sense that no-one reads a biography about someone in which they are not interested. This inevitably means that recommending a biography is a tough sell unless you can convince someone that there is something to be learned in general about the human condition rather than just about the person. In other words, a biography that is just a chronicle of a person’s life is pointless. What we want is to understand more about what makes human beings tick in general, not just how, in this instance, Peter Cook ticks. Or tock.

Thompson’s biography certainly gives us a view of Cook that’s sympathetic and comprehensive but a close reading provides us with the opportunity to explore how personalities can be layered, and how these layers can, over time, become harder to distinguish.

From his university days and involvement in writing and performing comedy and satire, Cook developed a set of characters that became, in later years, simply facets of himself. It’s hard to decide whether his characters were a reflection of his inner self or whether they shaped his later self to become more like them.

Like many comedians, Peter Cook would swing from being confident and on top of the world to insecurity and being filled with self loathing. The ease with which he appeared to be able to reduce people to tears of laughter was at odds with his own conception of his abilities and impact. His early triumphs with the Edinburgh fringe helped move him on to be part of the seminal Beyond The Fringe shows, and then to his partnership with Dudley Moore and the creation of the No Only… But Also series. Throughout the 60’s, Cook was a celebrated part of the comedic establishment both as a performer and writer.

Bedazzled poster

Bedazzled (1967)

In 1967, he played the role of Satan, incarnate as George Spiggot, to Dudley Moore’s Faust, Stanley Moon, in the now celebrated Bedazzled. [2] At the time, it was not a great commercial success but scored as a satirical anti-religious movie that, for me, marked a high point of the Cook-Moore partnership.[3]

The bio tracks the gradual break-up of the Cook-Moore partnership, with Cook becoming much more aggressive and Moore wanting to explore other avenues, which ultimately lead to his moving to LA to become part of the Hollywood scene. A turning point came with the creation of the scatological Derek and Clive characters in the mid-70’s, which were basically off-the-cuff, profanity laden duologs recorded by Cook and Moore in a studio in New York. The later recordings are more of monologues by Cook, which at times seem unnecessarily cruel towards Moore. It’s fair to say that things were never the same between them after the Derek and Clive period.

Thompson tracks the ups and downs of Cook’s career through the 80’s and 90’s, which were peppered with a series of failures and set-backs. Against this we read about Cook’s two failed marriages and his increasing use of drugs and alcohol. Not surprisingly, his relatively early death at the age of 57 was due to a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, which in turn was caused by a liver damaged by alcohol abuse.

The discussion still goes on as to whether Peter Cook peaked in the 70’s, a point of view that the biography suggests wouldn’t be unreasonable to make. However, even if that were the case, the influence that Cook had on the UK comedy establishment was tremendous. Many UK comedians regularly cite him as being a major influence, and his legacy to political satire remains in the form of the UK’s Private Eye magazine, of which he was part owner and a contributor.

Lovers of comedy will find much on offer in this biography of a man who was as flawed as anyone else yet who managed to help shape a generation of comedians and satirists, and who played a central role in changing the face of comedy and satire in the UK.

In a similar, though less tragic, vein, Hugh Laurie, the actor who is very popular and well-known in the US as the supremely comic House, worked for many years with Stephen Fry, who continues to be a huge comedic and cultural influence in the UK but remains less known in the US. Fry was a very close friend of Peter Cook and provided a wonderful eulogy for him just after his death. House is, of course, not a drama but a comedy, which is exactly why Hugh Laurie is ideal for the role.

[2] The 2000 remake of the movie with Brendan Frazer playing the Faust role and Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil is really only notable for Hurley. She is, without doubt, one of the sexiest Satan’s a dude could meet, and it would be a very saintly man who would find it possible NOT to sell his soul to her. The scene in which Hurley plays a schoolteacher remains forever embedded in this dude’s brain. It also makes us wonder what on EARTH Hugh Grant was doing when he split up with her. Any comments about our being sexist should be tempered by remembering that we are Dudes and hopelessly lost when it comes to beautiful women.

[3] In truth, watching the film now no longer has me laughing as much, most likely because I’ve seen it too many times and it is, after all, over 30-years old and thus dated. What was, at the time, a sharp satire seems now to be a mild poke, and it’s hard to imagine it as being in any sense “shocking” or “sacriligious.” Still, for die-hards who appreciate the history of humor, it’s certainly one to include in the Canon of Comedy.