Mapping a path to a hearing sun

I went for my third mapping on Thursday 1st Dec, a week ago.

First, a warning: what you are about to read is quite long and technical, and therefore probably quite dull and uninteresting if you’re not a CI user yourself, or at least profoundly interested in the audiological science surrounding it.

Jacki, my audiologist, turned down the volumes of the higher frequencies, which were a little too sharp for my liking. But she also added in a new programme with the same moderated high frequencies but with a “smoother” sound scale. It seems that my previous map was based purely on what I could tolerate, which resulted in some simple inconsistencies in terms of the sound information the processor was sending to my implanted ear. When I listened to the “piano scale” of my 22 electrodes, two or three of the electrodes were a good bit out of tune. They were adjusted so that the scale is now smoother but still within tolerances. The result was better, although I couldn’t explain exactly why.

However, in the standard baseline speech recognition test that followed, I only got 26pc again – no improvement on my first test three months ago. A bit disappointing, but both Jacki and speech therapist Lesley were reassuringly philosophical.  Jacki went as far as to say that if someone had told her a patient was using the phone and listening to audiobooks without too much trouble but only getting 26pc in the test, she wouldn’t believe it, which suggests that the standard speech recognition test they use is a bit one-dimensional. There are no words, just sentences.  I do WAY better with context, and through earphones. Also some folk do far less well in these types of tests because they believe that they need to get all the sentences right, not just one or two words. Jacki thinks I exhibit some of the classic signs of that type of ‘test anxiety’.

Lesley ran through some exercises and confirmed that with some context, I score very well, possibly higher than average, but that the next stage is learning to listen to things without context, or open-ended rather than closed ended questions or information. I just need to keep working at it.

She also mentioned that the Beaumont team is working on developing another set of test measures to give a more holistic reflection of progress, such as the way I do with telephones and audiobooks, for instance.

Despite these reassurances and the knowledge that I’m progressing really well on a practical level, does this suggest the quality of what I’m hearing is as good as it could be? I wasn’t 100pc sure about the latest program, so Jacki offered to book me in again to see her a week later – if I wanted to – for a further tune-up.

After this appointment, I decided to try and just use the implant on its own for a while. One CI-using friend did this and swears that she saw her speech recognition improve dramatically after that. Still uses her hearing aid, but prefers implant, as is the case with most implantees.

After a few days of this, the exercise was useful in that it showed up what I’m missing – and which had been ‘masked’ to some extent by what I was hearing through my hearing aid.  It was basically not as sharp as I wanted and quiet sounds are not coming through as much as I would have expected. My implanted ear, even though it feels the stronger, more dominant ear in general, still feels like its playing only a supporting role to my HA ear when it comes to speech recognition.

So I went back today to see the ever-patient Jacki, and explained some of this to her.  She turned up some of the quiet sounds but also some of the higher sounds (I had used the example of not hearing fans very well, which turn to be in the higher ranges of the sound frequency spectrum). Result: much better again. Sharper, louder, fuller.

On the question of using just the implant alone, Jacki explained that the old school of thought was that you shouldn’t mix CIs and HAs when your CI is first activated until you’ve had a chance to get used to it, but now the school of thought (which Beaumont subscribes to) is to use both from the word go. The logic is essentially that two ears are better than one, and even if the sound information being received seems radically different from one ear to the other, it’s still better to have two ears giving serviceable hearing.

But it also turns out that Jacki is tuning my programs based on me having a hearing aid too. Programs can be tailored for an implant on its own, but if she did this, then it might be too overwhelming if I used the hearing aids as well because the implant output would be more powerful – it would be trying to do the work of two ears in as far as it can. So we’re sticking to the current plan and enabling a set-up that gets the best from both ears – in balance.

(exhales)

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Hanging on the telephone

On Thursday I’ll be going for my second mapping session, so now seems a good time to report on progress.

I had the volume turned up near to its max for the last few weeks in the assumption that I would need more volume as time goes on. But in my case, the volume seems probably fairly close to what it should be. I know this because I’ve had to turn the volume down, and it’s much more comfortable. However, the higher frequencies are a bit strong, and seem out of balance with the middle and lower frequencies, so hopefully the next session will rectify that. I find female voices easier to tune into than male ones, which does suggest an adjustment is needed (it’s usually the other way round, with most users, I think).

My session on Thursday will probably include my three-month baseline speech recognition test. I don’t expect to see a dramatic improvement but I can confidently say it will be probably be better than the 26% I got the last time.

In practical terms, face to face conversations are quite easy now and recently, on a rare visit to a noisy restaurant with my wife Sorcha, making out her voice seemed easier than I remembered.

I’ve also been listening with some pleasure to Stephen Fry’s plummy narration of the first Harry Potter book, and more recently without the need to refer too often to the pages of the book itself. I’ve been listening to the odd radio news report, a couple of podcasts from the BBC Learning English website and a few other bits and pieces. Naturally, it’s all still a bit hit and miss, but I can make out a heck of a lot more than since the early days of my activation, or before my op.

But the most pleasing development is that, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve spoken to my mother, father, and two sisters on the telephone, as well as with Sorcha while she is in the next room. It was a bit stilted at times, and the conversation didn’t go much beyond small talk, but it felt really good. Using the telephone is one of my main rehab aims, so to get the point already of having a brief chat with people I know well is a real boost.

Indeed, it’s not in my nature to get too excited about such tentative signs of progress, but what the hell:

I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall.
If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall.
I know he’s there, but I just had to call.
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
I heard your mother, now she’s going out the door.
Did she go to work or just go to the store?
All those things she said, I told you to ignore.
Oh why can’t we talk again?
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
It’s good to hear your voice, you know it’s been so long.
If I don’t get your calls then everything goes wrong.
I want to tell you something you’ve known all along.
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
I had to interrupt and stop this conversation.
Your voice across the line gives me a strange sensation.
I’d like to talk when I can show you my affection.
Oh I can’t control myself!
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone.
Hang up and run to me! Oh!

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Richard Reed, a musician with a cochlear implant

I attended a music workshop for CI implantees yesterday at Beaumont Hospital given by a chap called Richard Reed. Reed, from the USA, is a professional musician who lost his hearing several years ago and subsequently got a cochlear implant, although not until about ten years later.

Since then, he has embarked on his own journey back to music appreciation, not to mention resuming a career as a musician. He is now touring around the world promoting a special DVD and CD resource entitled ‘Hope Notes’.

The impetus for producing the resource is that many implantees complain they find music much more difficult to tune into with a CI, and that’s certainly true with me too. But Reed, using his professional skills and experience as a musician, aims to help implantees appreciate music better with some practical tips, advice and theory.

Here is a verbatim interview he last year to Audiology Online, a US website, which tells you everything you need to know, (so I don’t have to!) but suffice to say, the workshop was really interesting. Two of the most interesting things he said yesterday were that it took him a full two years after getting an implant to feel ‘goosebumps’ from listening to a piece of music, and also that improving your music appreciation through a CI is said to help you hear better in noisy situations. A lot of implantees give up on music, sadly, but if you work at it, it can reap serious dividends.

Also, Hope Notes is great. Thanks to the visual and verbal clues, it’s like listening to music with subtitles.

Time to dust off my old guitar and get some new strings….

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The digital TV switchover

Saorview will replace all analogue TV by 2012. John Cradden looks at how this will work


Get connected: Paddy Mulhern from Kinsale, Co Cork, with his many remote controls

Thursday October 20 2011

It was all supposed to be a very big deal. The Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, announced last week that the old, analogue terrestrial TV signal would be switched off on October 24, 2012 — a year from now.

A new digital terrestrial TV (DTT) service, called Saorview, which has been fully operational since earlier this year, will replace it.

Until then, both networks will operate in parallel to give every household that still relies on the old network the time to make the switch.

The announcement of the date for switching off of the old signal should have marked the final, mass step towards an exciting new world of free-to-air digital TV for everyone in the country.

Instead, it’s a seriously damp squib.

1 Why is that?

Well, we had already been waiting for DTT for something like 10 years. Plans were put in place by the Government and RTÉ as far back as 1999 to introduce a free-to-air, 20-channel service to replace the old four-channel analogue one, beginning in 2001.

Long after that deadline passed, the Government decided that because of the costs involved, it would seek a commercial partner to create a 25-channel service comprising both a free-to-air service and an (optional) premium pay TV service.

Cutting a long story short, a number of media consortiums bid for the commercial DTT licence, but following protracted negotiations over the contract that took over three and a half years — adding to the delay — none of the three consortiums who were offered the contract accepted it.

This was partly because of the downturn, but also the belief that the service was no longer commercially viable.

All EU member states were given a deadline of 2012 to switch off their analogue TV signals, so that left the Government and RTÉ with no choice but to proceed with launching the basic, free-to-air service, called Saorview, with just nine Irish channels.

2 What are the nine channels on Saorview?

RTÉ One, RTÉ Two, TG4, TV3, 3e, an RTÉ news channel, an RTÉ children’s channel, RTÉ One +1 (showing RTÉ stuff an hour later) and RTÉ Aertel (the teletext service).

3 So who is Saorview for?

If you are among the 69pc of households that enjoy living in multi-channel pay-TV land, you may be surprised to learn that there are still 250,000 households that rely solely on the old analogue TV signal, according to figures from the Department of Communications. That’s 13pc of all households with a TV.

If you are among the 2pc of households that won’t be able to access Saorview, you’ll have to wait for the satellite version, Saorsat, about which more information is expected soon.

4 I live in multi-channel pay-TV land. Is there any point in me switching to Saorview?

Unless you’re happy to return to four (OK, nine) channel land, there seems practically no point whatsoever. Your pay-TV service will have the four Irish channels anyway.

However, you may be considering ditching your pay-TV subscription to help cut back on your bills, in which case Saorview is the way to go.

But if you want loads of Irish and UK channels but would prefer not to have to pay for them, then you could invest in a satellite TV package that can receive free-to-air UK satellite channels and combine it with a Saorview approved set-top box or TV to get the Irish channels. It’ll mean putting up a dish, and more remote controls and boxes to clutter up your home and confuse you, though.

You can get these packages and more information from independent satellite suppliers, such as Satellite.ie, Freesat.ie or Freetoair.ie.

5 I live in four-channel land and will need to switch over to Saorview by next October, obviously. What do I need to do?

Most people who currently receive analogue signals through an aerial will not need to upgrade their old TV set, but they will need a set-top box (available for around €100) to decode the digital signal, a SCART lead, component cable or HDMI cable to connect the box to your TV.

The aerials in most homes that receive analogue TV signals will also work for DTT.

If you do buy a new TV, most models are integrated digital TVs (or iDTVs) these days, which means they have the digital receiving equipment built-in, removing the need for a set-top box.

To minimise buyer confusion, RTÉ has developed a labelling scheme for digital receivers and iDTVs that are “Saorview approved”. This means that devices with this label attached are guaranteed by RTÉ to work on Saorview.

This is not to say that if you bought an iDTV or set-top box recently without the Saorview approved logo, it won’t work with Saorview. It’s just not 100% guaranteed to, or might need extra tuning to work.

6 Wasn’t there some talk of scrapping the TV licence and replacing it with something else?

Yes. Earlier this year, communications minister Pat Rabbitte told the Dáil that it might well be worth considering the introduction of a universal household charge to replace the TV licence fee. He said his department, as part of a review of the TV licence system, was trying to get a handle on new platforms being used to access TV services, such as through the internet.

“Seeing that catch-up services are the norm and you can bypass broadcast TV without missing out, there is a logic to having a household charge,” says Niall Kitson, editor of digital media magazine PC Live!

“The argument against it is that it would be tantamount to introducing a broadband tax by stealth. The EU might have something to say about that as well.”

For more information about the digital switchover, check out www.goingdigital.ie.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Pondering a book, but still seeking a stable map

Three weeks since my last post. I need to go to blogging confession again.

It’s not as if there isn’t plenty to say. In fact, I am thinking of writing a proper book about all this between now and next year, and have actually spent much of this morning thinking about a tentative outline and structure.

I had thought of just doing some kind of long-form article, but long-form journalism is a bit of a dying format particularly in Ireland, with the result that books are fast becoming the natural home for any in-depth journalistic investigation of a topic. Any journalist worth his or her salt is churning out books regularly, so this seems a good time to try.

The real question is, what angle to take? Getting a publisher interested would be another issue given the subject area, so this is why the angle would need to be very original. There’s always self-publishing, though.

Went for my 2nd mapping session on October 12. By this stage, there was certainly no sign of my implanted ear becoming the dominant ear, much less overwhelm my hearing aid ear, as apparently often happens. Things were quite faint in my implanted ear alone. My audiologist, Jacki, hinted that I had probably been a little bit conservative in terms of volumes during previous two mapping sessions, so I pledged to try to, for want of a better phrase, to be more adventurous this time. Cue a laborious run through 22 channels of calibrating beeps, each ascending in volume until they reach the point where they became either a bit too loud or just right.

Then she switched it back on: whoa. It literally felt like higher volts of electrical pulses were feeding into my auditory nerves. My facial reaction said enough that Jacki, without even me asking, immediately turned it down a bit. That’s better. Yes, nicely louder, and a bit sharper. Quite a difference. However, she still says I don’t have a ‘stable map’, which still means there is more fine tuning to come.

Minutes later, Jacki did an impromptu speech recognition test, in which I did slightly better than last time, but not that much (26pc or something). So far, these tests have been done straight after a fresh mapping, just when you are still getting used to the improved sound, so it possibly distorts the true results – it seems to me. There is possibly a method to this, but I didn’t ask Jacki at the time if there was. I will next time.

Roughly five days later, my implanted ear is actually feeling like its starting to become the dominant ear. When I take it off (but leave my HA on) it’s seriously quiet. Mind you, it’s probably being helped by my head cold, which in turn blocks up my sinuses and affects the hearing in my hearing aid ear. But stills feels like an important transition, a tipping point where my auditory cortex is just starting to get it, and wants more.

Yesterday, I tried listening to an automated voice emanating from the messaging system of my mobile phone operator, using my earphones in both ears. I understood about 80pc of what was said. Mind you, it’s was easy to guess the context. “If you want to record your voice greeting again, please press 4”.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook, and listened to one chapter a second time without reading it, and I got (I think) about 40-50pc of what was said, but only with full concentration.

But i can certainly follow online videos on youtube or RTE where i can at least see the speaker’s face. This is more than what i could manage five weeks ago.

It already feels like I’ve had this implant switched on for ages, but I have to keep reminding myself it’s only been five weeks. Peak adjustment is supposed to take up to a year.

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Self-assessed tax returns: DIY or use an agent?

Like visits from the grim reaper, there is never a convenient time for taxes. But for the nearly 300,000 among us who are self-employed, as well as the many thousands more who have non-PAYE sources of income to declare, it’s not like you haven’t been warned.

The tax-return deadline date of October 31 is well flagged every year by the decent folk at the Revenue Commissioners and, thanks to the ROS (Revenue Online Service) website, those who file online instead of by snail mail benefit from another two weeks’ grace.

But doing your tax returns is likely to be among those jobs that you might perpetually put on the long finger, with the risk that you may miss the deadline and have to pay financial penalties.

According to recent research by tax-return specialist firm taxback.com, about 20% of self-employed taxpayers are expected to miss the pay-and-file deadline.

If you do file late but within two months of your deadline passing, there is a 5% surcharge on the amount of tax liable, subject to a maximum of €12,695. If you’re more than two months’ late, a 10% surcharge kicks in, with a maximum fine of €63,485.

1 Can I not just get an accountant to do it?

Of course, and you certainly wouldn’t be the only one. The Revenue tells us that of the nearly 430,000 tax returns (forms 1 and 11) filed for 2009, more than 345,000 — or 80% — of them were filed through an “agent”. This means that only about 80,000 of us would file the returns ourselves.

However, if you are only submitting all the necessary information to your accountant the day before the deadline, then don’t expect him or her to be able to file the return in time. This is the busiest time of the year for them, after all.

Many will ask that you file at least a week or two before the deadline, but preferably much earlier. Most firms will file returns online, which means they would have until November 15 to file.

2 I’ve never filed a tax return myself before, but is it possible that I could end up paying more tax than I should because I made a mistake or overlooked something?

“Every year, a lot of people make mistakes on their tax returns, which means they often end up having to get an accountant to look over their tax return in the end,” says Christine Keily, senior personal tax manager at taxback.com. “It saves time and money to use a professional at the outset.”

Anthony Casey of accountancy firm Noone Casey says many self-employed people make mistakes when calculating the tax-deductible expenses.

“A good accountant will advise on the correct expenses to be charged,” he said. “For example, many self-employed or small company businesses operate from the family home.

“The accountant will advise on the level of household utility bills that can be used to reduce the taxable profit of the business.”

Most accountants will probably make similar pitches, but working with one might not be a bad idea if you’re doing it for the first time. They can also help navigate you round the tricky issue in 2011 of how to apply the new Universal Social Charge (USC) to your preliminary tax.

If your tax affairs turn out to be fairly straightforward, then you could try doing it yourself the next time.

3 How much would I expect to pay an accountant to do it for me?

In general, what most accountants charge for calculating and filing a self-assessed tax return depends on your personal tax circumstances and what you want them to do.

Some firms and individuals charge by the clock, which usually means that while they have a basic fee, this can rise depending on the complexity of your tax affairs and how much correspondence is needed. So while you can expect to be charged at least €200-250 for a simple tax return, it may rise if your accountant has to chase up information from you.

Some firms, such as Early Bird Tax Returns, offer cheaper rates if you can submit all your information before July, August or September.

Other firms offer a flat-fee structure. Taxback.com, for instance, offers a number of flat-fee services ranging from €99 to €400, excluding VAT. “We initially assess the person’s tax requirements and then calculate the cost of filing their tax return,” says Keily.

An alternative to a traditional accountant or firm is to use an online service like Paylesstax.ie, which essentially guides you through the process of filing a self-assessed tax return online yourself, at a fixed cost of €149 including VAT.

“Our online systems are human-proof once you follow the very easy menu systems, so nothing can be overlooked, particularly when rushing towards the end of the tax deadline,” says Cathal Maxwell of Paylesstax.ie.

4 OK, well I’m not self-employed, but I do now have one or two things to declare, plus some tax reliefs to claim too. Should I get somebody to do that too?

You might be surprised to learn that more and more PAYE taxpayers are using agents to do the simple stuff too, according to the Revenue. In 2009, around 240,000 submissions by PAYE taxpayers were linked to an agent.

But unless the idea of even contemplating anything to do with personal tax without lifting the phone to your friendly accountant has you breaking out in cold sweat, our advice would be to do it yourself. It’s not so complicated that you are likely to miss anything that would result in you losing out, financially.

5 Is making simple tax claims really that simple?

In most cases, yes. If you have tax-form phobia, then we might not be able to convince you of that here, but at the very least check out the ridiculously easy-to-use Revenue online portal called PAYE Anytime.

Designed specifically for PAYE taxpayers, you can use this portal to manage your tax affairs in much the same way as online banking can help you manage your bank accounts without having to visit a branch.

Once you have signed up (and more than 615,000 people already have), you can claim most of your tax credits, re-allocate credits between yourself and your spouse, declare additional income, request certain forms and apply for tax refunds, such as health expenses, among other things.

You can even access most of this stuff using your phone.

Case study

Before he retired a number of years ago, Sean O’Meara was chief executive of advertising agency, Young Advertising, for 15 years.

Since retiring, he has undertaken some occasional consultancy work and also built up some income from other sources, so he needed to start filing self-assessed tax returns.

Initially, he used a tax consultant to help him file his returns, as he felt he needed the advice and guidance.

That changed when he came across paylesstax.ie, an online tax-return service that assists users in filing their own tax returns themselves.

Now Sean uses paylesstax.ie exclusively, and has done for the last three years.

“I like it because it simplifies everything for me, guides me through the procedures with clarity and I feel reassured that everything is complete when I am finished,” he said.

It has also saved him a few bob. “I have saved money because I relied greatly on the advice offered, and obviously still do, and for me that’s an important, essential part of the package,” said Sean.

“In a way, you could say that it’s like having a real, live tax consultant on the screen with me, and I need that support.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Early Christmas shopping – is there any point?

You might have to rub your eyes and wonder if you really do need to go to Specsavers. But no, there’s no mistake.

We’ve just been enjoying an Indian summer, and Halloween is still a full month away, but take a walk today down certain aisles of your local supermarket and there is a good chance you will see them.

Mince pies. Selection boxes. Christmas cakes and puddings. And just in case you think they were put there by mistake, they are surrounded by distinctly seasonal displays.

Tesco seems to be quite actively engaged in the practice, judging by the reports on Twitter, Facebook et al and readers who have posted photographic evidence to satirical news websites.

Indeed, as reported in this paper, Tesco had rolled out its selection boxes and tins of sweets in early September — when there was still over 100 shopping days to go to Christmas. The supermarket chain said it had been doing this for the last four or five years.

Other supermarkets, including Supervalu, hinted that their Christmas campaigns would be starting soon.

But as well as the supermarket aisles, Christmas lights have been spotted in Limerick city centre, while a large inflatable Santa is reportedly atop a hotel building in west Dublin.

Faced with difficult trading conditions, traders here seem to have decided that Christmas needs to start even earlier.

1 But why? It’s still three months away.

“Retailers have had a very difficult trading year thus far and they are now relying on the Christmas season to buoy up sales,” says Fionnuala Carolan, editor of grocery trade magazine Shelflife.

Industry figures show that the Irish grocery market has fallen 0.5% in value on this time last year, so retailers know they have to try and take advantage of any way they can to make up lost sales, she said.

Susan Birrell of Deloitte says: “Based on CSO figures recently released, which show that retail sales fell by 3.6% in August, retailers may be trying to pull back some of sales from over the summer months by making Christmas products available earlier.”

2 Okay, fair enough, they have to try. But do they have to try so early?

Stephen Wynne, editor of another grocery trade publication Checkout, says: “I agree, it does seem very early, but if you talk to retailers they will tell you it fits in with people planning their shopping in advance.

“Just as people might budget for the weekly shop, they will argue that there is a certain demographic that will plan Christmas shopping in advance.”

He says it is also worth noting how major retailers increasingly try to build ‘events’ around certain times of the year, such as Halloween and Christmas. “Big events generally have long lead-in times,” says Wynne.

3 Well, I’m still keeping my money in my pocket for now.

It certainly may be too soon to tell if retailers’ efforts to push Christmas trade even earlier this year will have the desired effect, but consumers probably won’t be tempted to spend more anyway, says Birrell, who oversees the research for Deloitte’s annual Christmas spending survey.

“One of the trends that we have seen from the annual Deloitte survey of Christmas spending over the last number of years is that consumers have been diligently sticking to their Christmas budgets, and these are unlikely to increase significantly this year,” she says.

“People will still have the same amount of money to spend.”

4 But if I do my Christmas shopping now, am I likely to get better value?

This is the big question. On the one hand, some smart shoppers are now planning to do the trick of holding back on their Christmas shopping until the last minute because so many shops last year started their January sales before Christmas.

“The temptation to hang on for a bargain has long been a feature of Christmas shopping in Ireland, with people holding out for Christmas Eve buys at January sale prices,” says Birrell.

On the other hand, some retailers may also be planning more promotions and sales in the coming weeks than they normally would at this time of year, mainly because consumers now expect them.

“Increasingly, retailers are more flexible in their strategies, and so increased promotional offers and discounts may well be more prominent throughout the entire festive season,” says Birrell.

“Retailers have recognised that consumers are determined to get the value they expect, and will shop around to do so.”

5 Besides the advantage of getting it out of the way, is there much point in buying Christmas stuff early at the full price?

A quick visit to our local Tesco, Supervalu and Dunnes Stores shows that stocking up on Christmas-themed items is a false economy unless they are actually discounted.

In Tesco, there is a whole aisle dedicated to Christmas confectionary with 850g tins of Roses/Heroes/Quality Street retailing at €6 instead of around €12. Even in the toiletries section there are ’3 for 2′ offers on gift packs of aftershave or perfume.

There are some similar offers in Dunnes and Supervalu (mainly the half-price 850g chocolate/sweet tins), but no seasonal displays just yet — thankfully.

Your favourite mince pies can be bought anytime from your local supermarket, so do look out for a useful discount if buying early.

For non-food items, buying early may only make sense if you’re buying online, as you won’t have any delivery issues.

6 I would like to support my local traders, though.

Well, the good news is that some local retailers are already thinking up Christmas loyalty promotions to try to encourage shoppers to stay with them from now until the end of the year.

According to Carolan, the owner of a Gala store in Co Kerry is offering its customers a free turkey and ham this Christmas if they fill in a loyalty card between now and then.

“Within two days of launching this promotion, sales had picked up in the store,” she said.

“Consumers are constantly chasing value these days, and retailers are responding in any way they can.”

Early shopping pros and cons

Pros

1 No panic buying, less stress

2 More time to plan what to buy, so less likely to go over your budget

3 You’ll come up with better, more spontaneous gift ideas because you’re not under pressure

4 More time to make stuff, including home-made gifts

5 More time to enjoy the festivities, see friends and family and soak up the atmosphere

6 Santa and his elves get more time to fulfil orders

Cons

1 More time to stress out about what to get people

2 The longer you have, the more presents you might end up buying (particularly if you have small children or relatives)

3 You’re reinforcing the commercialisation of Christmas by shopping so early

4 No one wants the homemade gifts anyway

5 More chance of irritating others around you with your smugness

6 More chance of friends or family finding the presents you’ve hidden

- John Cradden

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Confessions of a haggler

The very idea of bargaining sends some shoppers into a cold sweat — but there are savings to be made if you know how, writes John Cradden

For the average Irish consumer, haggling is still a bit of a dirty word. Many of us are reluctant to roll up our sleeves and give it a go.

It’s more associated with the kind of price negotiating you might do with sellers at a Moroccan souk, not with sales assistants at M&S.

It’s a similar story over in the UK. Research by Invisible Hand, an online shopping company, suggests that three quarters of consumers are too shy to haggle for a better deal, and this is costing them an average of £220 (€258) a year.

While no similar studies have been undertaken here, consumer experts readily point to our timidity when it comes to negotiating over price.

“The majority of us do not know how to haggle and even if they did, would prefer not to as they are too embarrassed, shy, nervous or afraid,” says Dermott Jewell, chief executive of the Consumers Association of Ireland. “The remainder see it as either pointless or unseemly.”

1 Well, I hate the idea of haggling too. Even the idea brings me out in a cold sweat. Should I be trying to get over it?

While keen to encourage haggling in general, the National Consumer Agency (NCA) suggests that first-time hagglers should check out local markets and second-hand shops.

But rather than haggle with someone face to face, an even easier approach for a first-time haggler might be through online shopping, for which practically all communication is by email anyway.

John Madden from Dublin emailed a hotel in Cork he had stayed in before to ask if it could match a special offer price he had been given before, and added that he would like to stay there again but a nearby hotel was cheaper.

“I got about 25% off,” he said. “It’s easier to ask [by email] and you can edit it down to a well-reasoned argument before you send. Politeness is the key, either way.”

2Hotels do seem to be more open to negotiation than before, given the economy. But what about other sectors?

You could try negotiating on things like major dental treatment or work on your house, or services such as gyms, crèches and garages, says the NCA.

“There is often some room for manoeuvre on price when you are paying for someone’s expertise rather than for a physical item, especially where you have competing offers to choose between,” said a spokesman.

You may have more luck in general with haggling on high-value items, such as furniture, cars, electrical goods.

“There is often some in-built wriggle room for salespeople on these items,” he said.

Also, if you buy multiple items or bulk purchases, such as home heating oil, coal or electrical goods, you can try asking for a discount.

3Are there certain firms more open to negotiating on price than others?

Research by UK personal finance site Moneysavingexpert.com revealed that almost 80% of Sky TV, broadband or home phone customers who tried to barter down costs secured a better deal, while 73% of AA customers who had haggled said they ended up with a cheaper deal on their breakdown cover.

It’s not clear if Sky Ireland and AA Ireland would show a similar willingness to bargain with consumers, but there is certainly no harm in trying.

Mind you, be prepared for some shops giving you the short thrift. “When people casually insult me by trying to haggle, I tend to respond irately,” says the proprietor of a small, independent bookshop, Raven Books, via Twitter.

4At what places would haggling be unlikely to work?

You’re unlikely to get a discount just by asking in a supermarket, petrol station, restaurant, hairdresser or other similar shops because their “prices are either determined by law and the need to display them or simply that negotiation is impossible due to the structure of the business”, said Jewell.

“Information is power, however, and if you can approach a seller and knowingly tell them that you can do better by going elsewhere, then they have the choice to better that price or suggest you go to that other business.

“What have you lost? Nothing. What will they lose? A sale, and income,” he said.

5What sort of information will give me that power?

Finding out a variety of prices online has never been easier through price comparison websites such as Bonkers.ie, Compare.ie, Toprice.ie and Economiser.ie.

There are loads of search engines for hotels and accommodation too.

“Haggle or at the very least shop around and use competing offers to negotiate on renewals, especially for home and motor insurance and so on,” said the NCA spokesman.

You should also look out for companies that offer “price beaters”.

Retailers such as Harvey Norman, Windsor Motors, DID Electrical and Currys all state on their websites that if you find a similar item or service elsewhere for cheaper, it will match that price and, in some cases, offer to refund the price difference.

6Any other tips?

Jewell says it is worth asking what discount you might be offered if you pay by cash or debit card instead of your credit card, because this limits the retailer’s charges and they might be willing to share some of that gain via a price reduction.

“This is a softer form of haggling because you know you are only asking for a fair deal in how you pay.”

If you think you might become a regular customer, you could ask for a deal on the price or any additional benefits, says the NCA. Some companies offer a 10% discount off the next item you buy from them.

“Many companies will offer good deals to get repeat business and whilst a price reduction may not always be possible, you might get some additional add-ons or benefits that would be of value to you.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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A steeper mountain to climb

Bless me father, for it’s a full week since I last posted. It’s been two weeks since my switch-on and while all is fine, I’m realising I have a bit more of a mountain to climb than I thought in terms of reaching the optimum benefit from this CI. Of course, what everyone has been repeating to me more or less ad nauseum since I got the implant is that it takes time (by everyone I mean my audiologists, other CI implantees, well-informed relatives and my wife Sorcha. Even our four year old Ana chipped in once).  But being the impatient person I often am, this reality hadn’t quite sunk in until my first mapping session on Monday 13th, one week after switch-on.

Jacki switched me to two faster programmes than the one I had been on since switch-on the week before. Then afterwards I did the same speech recognition test as I did pre-op, and in which I had only gotten 14%. What did I get now? 20%. While Jacki assured me this was OK, and not to expect too much (it mainly serves as a baseline for future tests, to measure your improvement as the months go on), I was hoping for a bit more, so I was slightly disappointed. Some people seem to do very well straight from the word go, while others can take many more months, even years before they reach a stage where they can get scores of 80pc or higher in the speech recognition test.

It seems hard to believe at this stage that I will reach those kinds of heights,  over the last few days of working at my listening rehabilitation (basically someone reading out stuff without me lipreading them and trying to recognise what they say, as well as things like listening to audiobooks), I sense a small improvement in recognising speech. The odd word here and there. Hearing with the implant alone is still hard, but the two together is much easier.

The other thing is that I’ve belated realised I’m hearing those beeps and squeaks that I thought I didn’t comprehend in the hours after my switch-on, but which I now recognise as er… beeps and squeaks. Jacki tells me I probably need some further tweaking to my programmes.

So all in all, no miraculous progress; more of a slow burner. The brain needs time to rewire itself, after all.

While I’m on the subject of rehabilitation, I learnt a while ago that many CI programmes would not have included any aural rehabilitationtraining- at least in the past. In other words, implantees would have gotten the implant, gotten switched on, and then were more or less left alone to figure out how to get the best from the implant. I’ve a strong feeling already that my rehabilitation programme as directed by Lesley at Beaumont Hospital, while it seems a slow, often boring and ponderous business, will be hugely important on my journey back to serviceable hearing.

But in the meantime, everything else is working as it should, which is really reassuring, particularly given the news of the Cochlear (which makes the implant hardware) recall recently. Onwards and upwards.

 

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An understated moment

If you’ve been following my updates on the subject of cochlear implants, and since it’s been over five days since my much-hyped CI activation, you may be dying to know how I got on. Or maybe not. But here it is anyway.

The first thing to say is that I now fully understand why people say everyone’s experience is different. Over the past few months, I had read many of the best CI bloggers’ descriptions of their activations, which had together combined to create an expectation that my own switch-on would be an event filled with huge drama; a truly in-your-face sensory experience that would be almost overwhelming. One blogger in particular comes to mind (although she doesn’t blog anymore): Kate Locke wrote a terrifically entertaining and thoroughly dramatic account of her switch-on a couple of years ago.  It’s well worth a read, and there’s a link to a video of her activation that contains a lot of screaming.

Would mine be like that? Would I be skipping a merry dance of joy and tears on hearing the first beeps and squeaky voices?

As we (my wife Sorcha came along) walked into the activation room at Beaumont hospital, I was expecting to be quite nervous, but I wasn’t. It might have been because Jacki, my audiologist, led the process at a very relaxed, easy-going pace. Indeed, given the huge significance of the switch-on moment-of-truth for implantees like me, the very ordinariness of the whole situation was probably a calming influence.

The implant contains 22 channels, so Jacki had to calibrate the sound levels of each one by running a series of beeps and asking me to indicate for each channel when the beeps were getting too loud. A bit like tuning a piano, in some ways.

And then she switched it on. The strange thing is I almost didn’t realise it. It sounded surprisingly normal – at least normal compared to my experience of hearing with powerful hearing aids for the past 35-odd years. No beeps or squeaks. No R2D2 or even Donald Duck. The other big surprise was that – besides the first few seconds – it was nowhere near as loud as I was led to expect from other descriptions of activations. It was quite faint and low-pitched. Jacki and Sorcha’s voices sounded a bit like they were slowed down, or under water. A bit muffled. Very high frequency sounds like cups and cutlery clattering are very loud, the closest it comes to those beepy sound sensations that many other implantees seem to hear a lot, but not very distinguishable just yet. I think my left ear – always my worse ear – has probably never heard sounds at the very upper end of the sound spectrum, so it’s kinda scratching its head, trying to figure out what the hell they are.

But overall it certainly didn’t sound weird, or disorienting or overwhelming, even after exiting the room and then the hospital on a sunny but very windy September afternoon.

I always suspected that I would get used to it fairly quickly. My auditory cortex is a pretty resilient dude, coping with all kinds of hearing fluctuations over the years, particularly over the last two, and therefore has become quite efficient at extracting lots of useful information out of even the weakest of signals from my damaged hearing system. So while this new hearing is a totally different set-up to a hearing aid, it seems to be settling just fine and getting stuck in.

After five days of living with the CI, the implanted ear and my hearing aid ear are already proving a good team, more than the sum of their parts. The predominant sound sensation in my implanted ear alone is predominantly the same: low-pitched, with high-frequency sounds very loud but flat and indistinguishable.

Sorcha (and any adult for that matter) still sounds as if she’s utterly depressed, even though she patently isn’t. The kids still sound like normal, happy kids, with no issues or anything.

But my first mapping (or adjustment/fine-tuning) session is tomorrow, so hopefully things can be jigged around a bit then.

A great start, I think.

 

 

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