Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As somebody who works on speech perception, a good portion of my research time is dedicated to finding willing participants, sitting them in a sound booth and watching them listen to words, ensuring that they come back to subsequent sessions, and that they stay awake and undistracted during the current one.

Although experimental design has been discussed ad nauseam in the science world, the more human, more practical aspects of this process is not covered in textbooks, in courses, and in experimental design books. So, in the interest of open research, here’s a selection of tips I’ve accumulated during my time running experiments. I hope some of them are helpful!

Lab Coats aren’t just for (medical) Doctors!

A collaborator in psychology once told me that you should always wear a lab coat during experiments, because studies [[CITATION NEEDED]] have shown that people return for subsequent sessions more often when the experimenter is wearing a lab coat.

This works for recruiting, too. As trite as it is, if you visit a classroom to recruit participants, wear your lab coat. In my experience (p = anecdotal), more people sign up when I’ve worn a lab coat on top of my street clothes.

So, considering you can get one for $15 on Amazon, there’s no reason not to!

Tear-off Tab Posters can be easy!

Tear-off-tab Posters (like this one (PDF)) are a royal pain to make in Word. But if you use LaTeX (and you should use LaTeX), it’s easy! Just download this template to create an easy-to-print PDF. Changing the tab text is now only a few keys away!

Also, always remember to include the email or sign-up information on the main poster, in case all the tabs are torn!

Check up on your posters

If you’ve put up posters all over the campus/area, it’s not a bad idea to take a stroll around and see which ones are getting the most traffic (torn tabs). This way, for the next round, you know what areas are getting the most eyes.

Also, if you’re recruiting a certain demographic (e.g. students, older speakers, etc), you can ask participants “where they heard about the study”, and favor postering locations which are bringing in lots of people in your target market.

Always “seed the pot”

In my brief career as a street musician (playing the Hammered Dulcimer), I quickly learned that you need to “seed the pot”, that is, put some change and a few crumpled up $1 and $5 bills into your open instrument case. This helps to show people that they can put money in your instrument case, and adds an element of social pressure to do so (“Well, somebody else donated!”). This works for experimenting, too!

When you hang tear-off posters, always tear off one specific tab (“fourth from the left” or the like). This way, there’s social justification (“Oh, somebody else was interested!”), but you still know whether a given poster is actually getting traffic.

Similarly, when you send around a sign-up sheet during a classroom visit, always have one or two previously-booked spots “claimed”, ideally in two different pen colors and hands. Blank pages have inertia, but if my friends Randy Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe have signed up, it can’t be all bad, right?

Miniature Water Bottles are worth their weight in Gold

If you see a participant getting sleepy during an experiment, which is pretty common during monotonous speech perception tasks, offer them a (sealed) bottle of water at the next break. For some reason, that seems to work better than any other trick to keep people from fading off. And it’s always handy to have a case or two of 8oz bottles around for speech production experiments.

Leave some forms out!

Whether they arrive early, you arrive late, or the last person runs long, sooner or later, a participant will have to wait around outside the lab. If your experiment design allows it, it’s a great idea to put up folders with some copies of the consent form and questionnaire, and a sign along the lines of “If the door is closed, fill out a consent form and questionnaire and then have a seat, we’ll be with you ASAP.”

It’s a little thing, but it can save you a few minutes of watching a participant reading, and let you jump straight to “Any questions about the consent forms or questionnaire?”. It may only buy a few minutes, but some days, you need all the help you can get.

Check your bulbs

This was the best “weird little trick” I discovered for our lab. We have a large soundbooth with four floodlights, and always had trouble with excess heat in the booth, even with the booth fans running.

On a not-so-wild hunch, I replaced the four incandescent bulbs (which use 90% of their power to make heat) with LED floodlights, using university “green your lab” funding, and the excess heat problem all but disappeared. As a bonus, LEDs don’t emit much infrared light, which made dialing in our eye-tracker even easier. Win win!

Need a charge?

Asking that people leave their cell phones outside the sound booth during experiments is seldom effective and usually incites whining and objections. Not a great start to an experiment, and a recipe for distraction and GSM phone interference.

But if you provide charging cables and adapters for both iPhone and Android phones on the table with the consent forms, you can casually offer “you can charge your phone out here during the experiment”, most people will be thrilled to leave their phone outside the booth.

~ ə ~

Everything described and reviewed here was purchased with personal funds, and no keyboard manufacturers or retailers were involved in the making of this review.

I spend my days writing and typing, and good keyboard ergonomics are key to that. I’ve talked about Ergonomic Keyboards before, but I’d like to very briefly review three keyboards I’ve tried since, the Kinesis Advantage, the Matias Ergo pro, and the Kinesis Freestyle 2.

Kinesis Advantage Review

The Kinesis Advantage is a high-end ergonomic keyboard, with mechanical keyswitches, as well as contouring and sculpting to ensure that your hands are in the best, more comfortable position.

I found one, cheap, on Craigslist in my area, and used it for about a month.

This is a spectacularly well-made device. The keyswitches felt great, the hardware worked well, and it’s true, your hands feel great using it. The onboard macro function works well, too. Because of all that, I really wanted to like this keyboard. But I didn’t.

The biggest issue is the shape. This keyboard is between 2 and 3 inches tall, to make room for the sculpting. This means that it’ll never work with a rollermouse, my input device of choice, and it means that in order for the keyboard to be at the right height for your lower arms to be level, your desk needs to be very low. For me (with my long upper arms) this simply wasn’t possible. Maybe if the desk were exceptionally thin, or milled out to provide a place for the keyboard to rest, it’d work. But for me, it didn’t.

Also a problem is the learning curve. Because this is very different, keystrokes become unfamiliar, and some become altogether impossible. You’ll need to adjust your hands and brain to this keyboard, rather than the other way around. If it’s perfect for you in every other way, you’ll make do. But I didn’t.

Finally, the cost. This is a $300 keyboard (although I got mine for less than 1/3 of that on Craigslist). At that price, you need to need this keyboard. And I didn’t. So, it went back on Craigslist, and sold within a month, and I went back to the Freestyle I.

The Kinesis Advantage - Final Verdict

The Advantage was comfortable for sure, but too tall and deep for me to bother with the learning curve. Know your desk space and input devices before you take the plunge.

Matias Ergo Pro Review

This is a split keyboard with mechanical keyswitches, designed by Matias to be the most ergonomic mechanical keyboard on the market.

I pre-ordered this because I loved my Kinesis Freestyle and Freestyle 2 split keyboards, but missed the precision of mechanical keys.

Like all split keyboards, you can position the halves however you’d like, at a comfortable split for you and your needs (and you can set a glass of tea between the halves). The keys feel fine, although they require more force than the Kinesis Advantage or Freestyle. It was also solidly built, and the mechanical keys weren’t too clicky and loud. I loved the quick-disconnect USB cable in the back, N-Key Rollover, the expandable cable connecting the halves, and the layout (although 6 being on the right side took some getting used to). Unfortunately, this keyboard, although excellently designed, suffered terribly from a few flaws.

First, it’s thick. Even without the risers engaged, the spacebar is almost 1.5” deep. This required a very low desk, and an ugly hack to use it with a rollermouse:

This, I could forgive. But second, the keys required a pretty heavy pressure, and just didn’t feel that great to type on. I moved my Kinesis Freestyle 2 (reviewed below) to my office when I got the Ergo Pro. The first few days, my fingers were a bit sore from typing. I got used to it, but eventually, I realized that I did prefer typing at work, and the lower resistance keys, I think, is what did the trick.

It’s also buggy. The first keyboard they shipped me would periodically fail such that only G and F on the left side would register. Unplugging and replugging a few times generally fixed it, but when I inquired, Matias was kind enough to send a second version that they’d developed.

The problem is that although V2 solved that particular issue (and repositioned a few problematic keys), once every day or two, the keyboard would start pretending that the command key was being held down. Or maybe “s”. Or maybe it’d stop responding altogether. After figuring out that the keyboard was being strange again, you could reach behind the keyboard and unplug it to fix the problem. A quick fix, to be sure, but these are not problems that a $200 keyboard should have.

The Ergo Pro isn’t a bad keyboard, by any stretch of the imagination. It has nice switches, it’s well built, and aside from some bugs, works nicely.

But, to paraphrase Patrick Rhone’s excellent essay ‘Boring: A review’, well-made tools should eventually become boring. The Ergo Pro never did. There was always something. Whether it was a bit of hand soreness, or a bug making me unplug and replug, again, or a key not triggering when it should have, or re-adjusting the riser for the rollermouse because the Ergo Pro shifted, and so on.

As an experiment, I recently brought my Kinesis Freestyle 2 home from work, and plugged it in for the weekend in place of the Ergo Pro. And then I forgot about it.

It just worked, and I typed, my hands were happy, and I didn’t think about it. It was boring. The Ergo Pro went on sale that night.

The Matias Ergo Pro - Final Verdict

The Ergo Pro is a nice keyboard, which is well designed and excellently built. But the tall form-factor, firm keypresses, and occasional bugs in the hardware make this a losing bet at $200.

Kinesis Freestyle 2 for Mac Review

This is a split keyboard with low-resistance rubber-dome switches. It’s the followup to the Kinesis Freestyle that I reviewed back when.

The first one was great, and this is greater. It’s thinner than the first version, it’s black (instead of stain-showing white), it feels a bit more sturdy, and there are now hotkeys for things like volume and music control.

The big deal is the thin-ness. This means that it’s easier for those of us with long arms to get in the sort of neutral posture you want for typing. It’s now the perfect height for the Rollermouse Red:

It’s also the cheapest keyboard discussed here, at only $90 (at the time of writing). This keyboard is great in every way but two.

First, the keyfeel. Compared to a mechanical, it’s just not that great. The pressure needed is very low, which is nice. However, the action just doesn’t feel very satisfying. You don’t quite know for sure when you’ve hit the point where the stroke registers. But it’s reliable, and ultimately, boring, so it’s fine.

My other issue is very specific: The final column on the right half of the keyboard has “Home”, “End”, “Page Up”, “Page Down” with no space at all between those keys and Delete, \, Return. This makes it very easy to mean to hit “Delete” especially when doing so repeatedly or furiously, and accidentally hit “Home”, jumping to the top of your document. This is fine in an email, but a royal pain if you’re on page 155 of your 176 page dissertation.

I moved up to the Ergo Pro to try and fix those issues, but realized, only after a few months, that I’d lost more than I gained.

Kinesis Freestyle 2 for Mac - Final Verdict

The Freestyle 2 is a great ergonomic keyboard. I like this keyboard very much. It’s kind to my body, and it gets out of my way. Its flaws are small, and don’t really cause too much trouble.

Put differently, it got me through my 176 page dissertation pain-free. So it must be doing something right.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think the Kinesis Freestyle 2 is the solution for me, and probably for you. I’ll certainly try the next Freestyle, but every time I’ve tried something else, I’ve increased complexity, without increasing benefit.

So, if you need an ergonomic keyboard, give the Freestyle 2 a try. It’s got good features, good (but not great) key-feel, and most importantly, it’s easy. It’ll integrate with your desk, with your mouse, and it’ll show you the benefits of a split design. It won’t require you to learn a new layout, or program macros, or prop things up or lower them down. And with all the accessories available, you can do tenting, and raising, and all sorts of other silly things, if you see fit.

Instead, if your needs are anything like mine, it’ll sit there, and let you type, and be boring, and just work. And that’s the most important thing any keyboard can do.

~ ə ~

After nearly 10 years in operation, I’ve finally decided to disable comments on this website. My reasons are twofold:

First, I’ve been using Disqus for commenting since moving the site to Jekyll, as it’s the only option for dynamic comments on static pages. Since it’s a free service, Disqus sells information to advertisers and marketers and implements yet another form of user tracking, which you should probably be blocking anyways. So, although the service is free and works fine, I just didn’t care for that aspect.

More importantly, though, commenting just wasn’t being used that much. Although traffic here is surprisingly high (~1000 unique vists a day), I got something like one comment every two months, and even then, it was mostly people asking for help or asking questions.

So, given that there’s been little positive use for commenting, and some pretty severe privacy drawbacks, I’ve now switched off Disqus altogether.

If, in the future, you have questions, comments, or concerns on an article, just contact me, and if it makes sense to do so, I’ll edit the post or post a “letter to the editor” with your concerns, ideas, or comment!

Thanks to all those who have commented in the past, and to those who will continue to read (or email!) in the future.

~ ə ~

I just wanted to let everybody know that, after 3 months in the beta, and now using the Gold Master release version, OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” appears good to go for Linguistic work.

The OS is good, my previous tutorial on using IPA fonts with Mac OS X has been updated, my P2FA install guide still works, and Praat and R and LaTeX and everything else in my software toolkit are good-to-go.

In addition, to opine for a second, El Capitan, even in the Beta, has been far quicker and more stable than Yosemite, and is a good deal more resource-efficient. If you’ve not updated in a while, and your laptop supports it, I highly recommend you make the switch on September 30th, when it opens up to the public. It’s basically 10.10, but better. Nothing broken, lots fixed.

So, as a Linguist and a geek, Mac OS X 10.11 “Yosemite” gets my seal of approval.

Seal of Approval

~ ə ~

As I've continued to think about my teaching style and academic life, I keep thinking about some of the great teachers I’ve had in the past, and I want to show gratitude and share the people (and their actions) that changed who I am, academically and as a person.

Last time, I wrote an open letter to Mr. Morrow, a Math teacher who helped shape my style as a teacher. Today, an open letter to Kim Hinchey, who was one of the first people to encourage my passion for language.

Dear Sra. Hinchey,

You were my Spanish teacher for the last few years of Middle School. You weren’t my first Spanish teacher, and you weren’t my last. But you gave me a gift, and it stuck with me.

You probably remember that I was a little nerd. The kid always asking questions. Always wanting new words. Always wanting next week’s lesson today. And always frustrated that there was more to learn before I could actually talk in Spanish. That never really changed, and that’s probably why I kept in school forever.

Most of my language teachers didn’t handle that well. If I wanted to know how to say something different, maybe say that I might go to the park, or that I would, but I can’t, I’d go ask after class. But the answer was always “You’ll learn that next year” or “Oh, they’ll cover that in High School” or “Don’t worry about that yet.”.

This was really frustrating, because damnit, I wanted to speak Spanish, not repeat dialogues. I didn’t see why they’d teach us how to say “Pablo went to the park yesterday”, but not “Pablo will go to the park tomorrow”. I didn’t understand why they’d teach me to say “You stop.”, but not “Hey, You, Stop!”. But most of all, I resented the wall. Not just “Sorry, we’re not covering that until next month, look at Chapter 5 if you want to jump ahead”, but “No, I won’t teach you that. Focus on the dialogs from the chapter.”1

20 years later, I don’t remember much of Middle School. But I have moments that are clear as day.

One of these moments was after class, right before recess, standing by a bookshelf in the classroom. We’d just covered the compound future (“Voy a comprar un coche.”, ‘I’m going to buy a car’). But I’d heard there was another way to do the future (the ‘simple future’). And I went up to ask you about it. You explained that we’ll cover it next year, as all the other teachers did. But you went on. “Since you’re interested, though, I’ll make you a copy from the textbook for next year.”

A few minutes later (when I could have been at recess and you could have been eating), you handed me a piece of paper with a verb paradigm, showing the future tense forms for each person and class of verb. I may have been trying to act cool and not show it, but I was thrilled.

I had inside information! I could say something nobody else in class could. I could learn material on my own, and learn more about actually talking in Spanish. I went out on the playground, leaned against the building, and read over that sheet of paper like it had the solution to life, the universe, and everything on it. And I used that future tense, after class with you. At home. At work, a few years later. To this day, the simple future is my favorite Spanish verb tense2.

But the fact remains that I showed what a little language nerd I was, and you didn’t just dismiss it, or tell me to keep pace with the class, but instead, you encouraged me, and tossed fuel into the fire. And you kept encouraging me. Kept feeding me little bits of information based on questions. Kept filling in blanks, and letting me in on “secrets” we hadn’t learned yet. You even organized a school trip to Mexico, so I could actually try my Spanish with people who spoke Spanish every day.

I can’t blame you for my future life in language, as I probably would have ended up a linguist anyways, but you definitely got me going. You were one of few people to encourage me to push. And learn. And embrace my inner nerd. And for that, and for the Simple Future tense, I will be forever grateful.

Gracias, Sra. Hinchey

  1. This wasn’t just a rash of bad teachers in Middle School. It’s the same reason I dropped my Russian major in College. I wanted grammar and paradigms, but the instructors (and terrible textbooks) gave me dialog memorization a “non grammatical approach” to teaching grammar. This approach is about as effective for me as a non-swimming approach to teaching swimming.

  2. What, you don’t have a favorite Spanish verb tense?

~ ə ~