Start me up

Activation is scheduled for 2pm today. Quite late in the day. I’d prefer if it was in the morning time. I’m so ready to go I can’t concentrate on my work this morning, even with a deadline looming large. I managed to sleep fine though, surprisingly enough. Start me up.

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Oh dear, this is not what i wanted to hear…

From the website of the company that made my implant, and which is the very same one that is the subject of this recently announced action:

http://funnyoldlife.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/3dee13b8-dccb-11e0-bdec-3e9a655fb7c9_cochlearmonday.pdf

(via Tina Lannin’s blog: I Look So I Can Hear.)

This follows a major recall by another cochlear implant maker, Advanced Bionics, which it is only just emerging out of now.

This has put something of a dampener on my excitement about the swtich-on tomorrow. Still, going by the company’s figures, my implant has a 99.4% chance of working ok, which can’t be too bad.

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Mechanical brain to meet computer hearing

When you explain to people what happens when a cochlear implant is activated for the first time, it probably does sound very unnerving (literally, as it’s my auditory nerve that will be subjected to a merciless cascade of electrical stimulation). It certainly is for me, but at the same time I find there is something deliciously exciting about the idea of something inside me being switched on, or activated. It is, after all, likely to be the start of something totally, utterly new.

In a way, I’m surprised that the whole cyborgish weirdness of it doesn’t bother me that much. After activation, my processor headpiece will boot up every morning after latching itself onto my skull, and transmit millions of bits of data to the implant electronics inside my head, which converts it to electrical pulses and sends it down to my much-modified cochlea. At regular intervals over the next few years, my processor headpiece will be hooked up to a laptop which will upload new data, software or parameters, as if to give my ear an electronic service every so often.

I’m not someone who is naturally drawn to new technology or computers, possibly because it just means more things to go wrong. My brain prefers mechanical problems rather than ones of a digital or electrical nature. That’s why I like classic and older cars than modern ones, as you don’t need a laptop to diagnose a problem – just watch the temp gauge, and look out for leaks and any displacement of engine fluids (ie. water and oil) to places where they’re not supposed to go. I love fixing bicycles too. The most technical thing I’ve done with a PC is set up a blog and customise the typeface, and while the problems I encountered in doing so were very minor, they were enough to stress me out. It was only thanks to the online developer community that supports the open-source WordPress blogging software, who make fixes so easy, that I managed it.

But I’m still comfortable with the digitisation of my left ear – as long as everything works as it should. I quite like watching popular sci-fi films and TV shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who, which often have stories about the interface between technology and the human body, so maybe it’s my predilection for them that puts me at ease about all this.

So, at the stroke of a laptop key, my life will change. My brain has already booked a five-star suite in its long-term memory cortex for the arrival of this moment, even if its an unpleasant guest to begin with.

 

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Don’t skimp on car maintenance

Our cars are getting older, but looking after them needn’t cost the earth, writes John Cradden

Thursday September 08 2011

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that our cars are getting older. After all, new car sales fell off a cliff in 2009, and only recovered last year thanks to the scrappage scheme, which ended in June.

According to figures from car history checking website Cartell.ie, the average age of a car in Ireland has risen from less than six years old in January 2006 to 7.4 years in January 2011, with a month-by-month increase.

Shane O’Donoghue, director of Completecar.ie, says: “People are holding onto their cars out of necessity and not, in my opinion, because they suddenly think that older cars are just fine now.”

It may be one of the first things to fall victim to a tightening of the household purse strings, but skimping on a hard-working car’s maintenance is a false economy.

Anecdotal evidence from garages suggests that while people are holding on to their cars for longer, many are putting off their service or repair work until something serious goes wrong, according to the Society of the Motor Industry (SIMI).

Keith Colton of Colton Motors in Tullamore, Co Offaly, told Smart Consumer of a car with an engine knocking noise that came into his garage recently.

It ended up needing an expensive engine repair simply because the owner had not changed the oil — never mind checked it — in over two years.

“There was very little oil left in the sump and the small bit that was left had turned into a thick treacle-like substance, which had no lubricating qualities left,” he said.

“If the car owner only checked their oil more regularly and kept it at the right level, the engine will last a lot longer, and also will save on fuel.”

But while the cost of maintaining a car begins to rise once it reaches four years old (according to AA Ireland), there are lots of ways to save money on running costs without skimping on essential maintenance.

1 But if the average age of cars has been steadily rising, does that not mean that cars today are more reliable?

Yes and no. “The rate of development of the car in the past 20 years has been nothing short of astounding,” says O’Donoghue.

“The downside to that is that there is now more to go wrong than ever before.

“However, I’d maintain that cars are inherently much more reliable now. The issue is that the average car owner can’t fix it for themselves.”

Not surprisingly, SIMI agrees. Spokesperson Suzanne Sheridan says the greater complexity of cars, particularly diesel ones, means that garages need to be well up to date on new diagnostic technologies and methods, something that might not apply to a nixer or back-street mechanic or someone unqualified.

2 Right, so if today’s cars require a degree in computers to fix or maintain, is there nothing I can do myself?

Yes, there are still lots of basic, simple checks you can do that will save money.

“Before you bring your car to be serviced, check all the lights and fluid levels for yourself, as it’s easy to do and garages charge more than it would cost you to remedy anything for yourself,” says O’Donoghue.

Sheridan says motorists can still carry out basic maintenance themselves on a regular basis, such as checking tyre pressure, thread depth, oil, coolant levels and so on, “which will all make the car run more smoothly and improve a car’s miles per gallon”.

Savings: Up to €100 for a basic service

3 I’ve been doing this basic maintenance for years, so I’d be quite confident in doing more complex jobs with the help of my trusty Haynes manual.

The Haynes manuals are still regarded as the bible of the DIY mechanic with its easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions, and they also contain ‘difficulty’ ratings for each job, which is very useful. You can get them from any motor factors, Halfords or from online car parts retailer Micksgarage.ie for about €25-30 — well worth the money.

Savings: Up to €250 for a full service (if no major work needed)

4Ever since my car’s free servicing and warranty expired, my local dealer has been charging me an arm and leg for a major service.

There is a lot to be said for maintaining a dealer-stamped service history from new because this reassures prospective buyers when the time comes to sell. But once your car reaches four or five years old, this becomes far less important, as long as you keep all receipts for work done.

This means you can shop around for cheaper car servicing at independent garages, or perhaps from other franchise dealers who are seeking to win more servicing business by offering competitive-priced servicing packages for all popular makes of cars. Nissan dealer Windsor Motors, for instance, offers servicing packages for all makes from €69 to €139.

5I hate the hassle of visiting garages.

There are a growing number of mobile mechanic services that can service your car at your doorstep.

One of the newest entrants to this market is AA Ireland, which now offers such a seven-day-a-week service starting at €179 for an ‘interim’ service and from €229 for a full car service that includes 74 checks.

According to AA spokesperson Miriam O’Neill, the service is currently only available in Dublin and Cork, but there are plans to roll it out to other parts of the country next year.

You don’t need to be a member, either.

6If I do some servicing myself, or get an independent garage to do it for me, can I shop around for car parts myself to save money?

Yes, you can certainly check this out. Main dealers will usually be the most expensive place to buy original replacement parts, but you can get the same parts (or pattern or second-hand parts) much more cheaply from your local motor factor.

You could also try online shops such as Micksgarage.ie. If you need a replacement engine or body part cheaply, you could also check out scrapyard part finders, such as Partfinder.ie.

Savings: Pattern parts can be up to 50% cheaper than original replacement parts

 

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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To be a cyborg, or not to be a cyborg, that is the question.

Lots of cochlear implantees often talk about becoming ‘cyborgs’ as a result of getting their cochlear implant.  Most do so for comic effect, others because they think it sounds cooler than the term ‘prosthetic’ (which is essentially what a CI is), but others are deadly serious. The term isn’t very useful as a label, though,  as it means different things to different people.

Michael Chorost, a cochlear implantee who wrote an excellent memoir of his journey to getting a cochlear implant entitled ‘Rebuilt: how becoming part computer made me more human’, provides a clear and convincing definition of the word cyborg: “The essence of cyborgness is the presence of software that makes if-then-else decisions and acts on the body to carry them out.”

By this reckoning, someone with an artificial hip or limb is not a cyborg. Someone with a pacemaker is, and so does someone with a cochlear implant. But, as Chorost notes, pacemakers and CIs are two very different cyborg technologies.  In doing the simple job of making sure your heart doesn’t stop, you can easily forget about about a pacemaker. “When the control is over your senses, however, you can never forget about it. You are living in a new version of reality.”

Profound stuff, but that’s for another day. In the meantime, I’m practising my robot impression.

 

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A week is too long when you’re waiting to be switched on

OK, just over a week to go. I’m battling with a mix of emotions, including excitement, trepidation and frustration.

The frustration comes out of the increasing feeling that my life is kind of on hold, partly because I only have one ear together with a hearing aid that is providing, at best, 20% hearing. I haven’t much work on and I haven’t talked to friends or family that much since the op. It’s only thanks to her indoors and two young girls that the daily wheels of life are moving at all….

I worry about things going wrong. For example, I worry about making sharp movements in case my electrode ‘slips’ out. This is probably a very irrational, as this type of thing doesn’t happen very often. I haven’t been warned not to over-exert myself beyond the advice to take it easy and no flying for six weeks post-op.

I still feel the thing in there, and my ear is still numb, but at least i can forsee a point in the not too distant future when i will forget it’s there, judging by the gradual but steady dimunition of the soreness and numbness.

On another level, I’m battling against my instinct to be highly optimistic about all this, as everyone keeps warning me not to set them too high. Even if my hearing history suggests I should benefit well from a cochlear implant, outcomes can apparently be very disappointing, even for those who are expected to do well. Sometimes there is just no way of knowing.

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Going out is the new staying in

Smart Consumer: Going out is the new staying in: how you and the family can enjoy free fun…

By John Cradden

Thursday September 01 2011

When the recession began, staying in became the new going out as far as entertainment was concerned. Today, money is still tight, gig tickets are still an arm and a leg, and a cinema outing leaves little change from €10 per adult (never mind the popcorn).

But if cabin fever is already hitting fever pitch in your home, perhaps it’s time to take a different approach.

If you know where to look, you can easily find a whole raft of free special events and festivals to check out, as well as ways to gain admission to your favourite haunts for a lot less than full price.

“The most important thing is not to assume that culture and entertainment has to be expensive,” says Joerg Steegmueller, the man behind the Dublin Event Guide, a website and weekly email newsletter that lists only free events in the Dublin area.

Steegmueller started the free events guide in 2007 and is now hugely popular, with nearly 10,000 email newsletter subscribers. He still produces it in his spare time and has never missed a single deadline in the four years since he started.

“I list 80-100 free events every week and there are events available for all age groups, for all interests and in all parts of Dublin,” he said.

He says the reward for the organisers of a free event is the response they get. “If a lot of people come they will be a lot happier to run another free event, than if only a few people are in the audience.”

A free event also doesn’t mean lesser quality than a paid one. “The quality of a free gig or festival is at least as good as the quality of a non-free event,” says Steegmueller.

“Because free events are more accessible, it means that nobody is excluded based on financial ability and, especially during times of economic challenges, there is no need for people to stay at home or to miss out.”

1 Okay, so how can I find out what’s on that’s free?

Besides the aforementioned Dublin Event Guide (see Dublineventguide.com), you could look up Enjoyfreetoday.com, a website of free events in Galway, while Corkentertainment.ie has a section on free events in Cork. Other websites listing some free events include Entertainment.ie and Whatsonin.ie

For culture, you should check out Culturefox.ie, a website run by the Arts Council and Failte Ireland that lists many free cultural events around the country.

On Facebook, there is a group entitled “Things to do in Dublin on the Dry” that includes all kinds of casual suggestions for free things to do, albeit just in Dublin.

2 When it comes to free events, are festivals the only serious gig in town?

No, says Steegmueller. Although some of his favourite free events include the Street Performance World Championship, the Dublin City Soul Festival and the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures, he says there are many one-off events to watch out for that cater to all kinds of tastes.

One cool example was the 10 nights of free outdoor performances of ‘Romeo & Juliet Unplugged’ in Ranelagh Gardens and in Iveagh Gardens by Cracked Light Productions last month. It came about when the 2011 Ranelagh Arts Festival was cancelled. Rather than pack up and go home, the team decided to stage the performance for free in the nearby parks instead.

“The team was 30-strong and to get all of them to give months of their private life for rehearsals, preparation and then the performance is just brilliant,” he said.

However, most free festivals tend to take place in the warmer months, but if you hurry, you can catch one of the last in Dublin, the Phizzfest community arts festival in Phibsborough from September 8-11.

Don’t forget Culture Night on September 23, which hosts free events taking place in 30 towns, cities, counties and islands in Ireland; Open House an architectural festival in Dublin in October; and various Christmas markets. The Dublin Absolut Fringe Festival (from 10 September) as well as the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival (from September 29) also have a number of free events taking place.

Saving: €10-30 per gig/performance

3 What about art galleries, museums and places of historic interest?

The National Museums and the National Gallery are free, including the many events that it organises throughout the year. A visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art will allow you to take in several free exhibitions as well as a guided tour of the Royal Hospital building and grounds (until Sept 4).

Earlier this year, the Government decided to offer free access on the first Wednesday of every month to most of the historic sites managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) for the rest of this year, including places like the Rock of Cashel, Dublin Castle, Kilmainham Gaol and the Hill of Tara.

Saving: Up to €6 per adult for OPW sites

4 Okay, but what about the entertainment and events that are not free? How can I get in without paying the full price?

Again, if you know where to look, there is a whole variety of discounted and promotional offers there for the taking.

Becoming a member of Pigsback.com, for instance, has its benefits for the prudent popcorn muncher.

Almost every month, it hosts free preview screenings at selected venues for forthcoming releases, which so far this year have included One Day, Bridesmaids, and Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

It also offers daily ‘mega deals’ that enable members to get at least 50% off a variety of entertainment events, including theatre, Top Gear Live, and the O2 Summerjam.

If you are signed up to your local Tesco’s Clubcard loyalty scheme, there are some entertainment offerings available free or discounted in return for points.

You can also keep a look out for online discount promotional codes from popular venues via their presences on Facebook or Twitter or by signing up to their emailing list, which you can then enter when booking tickets.

Saving: €10 on cinema, up to 50% off popular events

- John Cradden

Case study

Italian native Guiliana Rocca has been based in Ireland since 2006 and lives in Dublin city centre and regularly seeks out both free and paid entertainment.

“I find it amazing how many things Dublin offers people to do for free,” she says. “But what surprises me more is the number of people who are often unaware of so many things going on in the city.”

Her main source of information is the Dublin Event Guide (for Free Events) email newsletter, which is produced by adopted Dubliner Joerg Steegmueller, and includes his personal picks.

Using the guide, she has managed to take in several memorable events over the last year without paying a cent, including the Fringe Festival opening in Collins Barracks; the Open House day, when you could visit several historical Dublin buildings; some shows from the Ulster Bank Theatre Festival, and many others.

“I’d say that in a typical week I would go out for one or two events, and so if they are free, I would be saving, let’s say, around €50 per week.”

The last paid event she attended was the Gate Theatre’s production of Jane Eyre, for which she paid €25.

“I like theatre a lot so the price was probably fair.” But to get more value she would like to see a discounted multi-theatre season ticket that would allow her to take in plays at several different venues.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Doctor, doctor, help me find GOOD easy-listening music

The Observer newspaper’s now-defunct Music Monthly supplement had and interesting segment called record doctor, where celebs would get a music ‘makeover’ broaden their musical tastes based on what they listened to and liked in the past.

I suspect that I will probably need such a service in the months to come, once my cochlear implant is switched on.

Why? To cut a long story short, cochlear implants are good for understanding speech and various environmental sounds, but music tends not to be so good, at least to people who had normal or useful hearing before getting one.

The long story: I was diagnosed deaf at three, and since then I’ve worn hearing aids. My left ear was profoundly deaf but my right was in the severely deaf range (there are basically four different degrees of deafness: mild, moderate, severe and profound), which meant it was still sharp enough to provide useful hearing with powerful hearing aids. I could talk on the telephone, hear the radio and TV, dictate stuff from an interview on a dictaphone and, most importantly, hear and play music. I had piano lessons for a few years as a child (until my teacher died and that was that), and then taught myself guitar in my teens. I bought music tapes (god, how old am I?) and then CDs at rate of once a month or so, on average. I went to the odd gig.

For all that, I’m hugely grateful to my right ear for hanging in there for so long, and was at least one of the reasons I chose to implant my left ear, as my right is still useful, and slightly better than my left – although there’s not a whole lot of difference between them now, on paper.

The main reason I applied to get a cochlear implant was because I couldn’t use the phone anymore or hear the radio following a deterioration in my right ear in February 2009. It wasn’t even that much of a deterioration, but the sharpness had gone, enough to cross what turned out to be quite a fine line between being able to hear the telephone and simply not being able to and, by extension, the radio and TV (without subtitles anyway), and dictate stuff from an interview etc. But more than that, ordinary everyday conversations became much more difficult.

But one of the most dispiriting effects was that music, while I could still just about hear it, now sounded flat, dull and grey. I could still hear it enough that I could still enjoy my favourite music because my mental jukebox could fill in the gaps from memory, but listening and getting into new music was too hard. As a result, I’m stuck in a kind of popular music time vortex that doesn’t go much beyond 2008.

The last album I actually bought was actually my first MP3 download: Radiohead’s In Rainbows in 2007. Not a lot since then, obviously, but the arrival of one and then two young children sort of took over any spare time or inclination I had for sitting down and listening to music.

The newest album I own was a gift from my wife in Christmas 2008. It’s not a CD, but a DVD: Sigur Ros’s Heima, a beautifully shot film of a series of free gigs in their home country of Iceland in 2007. I enjoy their big sound, but also because their lyrics are Icelandic and therefore incomprehensible so I don’t even need to make the effort. I’m a long-time Cocteau Twins fan for the same reason.

I also used to enjoy the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland music show occasionally, but the last time was when Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon did a sublime acoustic version of Skinny Love, also around Christmas 2008.

Now, you might expect that music will become more accessible to me if my new cochlear implant, when it’s switched on, works as it should. But this is not at all certain because even if they learn to recognise speech and various environmental sounds, cochlear implantees (at least those who are post-lingually deaf ie had normal or useful hearing for a time and then went profoundly deaf) traditionally have at least some trouble hearing and appreciating music to the same extent as when their hearing was halfway useful.

While cochlear implants have come a long way since they first became a routine procedure from around the 1980s, they struggle to convey the full sonic dept of music.

This is simply because instead of the roughly 10,000 hair cells in the cochlea that transmit sound information to the brain in normal hearing, I will have 22 electrodes , or ‘channels’, conveying relatively crude representations of sound in the form of electrical pulses. Since speech only occupies a very small portion of our sonic spectrum, implantees can learn to understand speech and other simple sounds in time. Music, given that it tends to occupy most of the sound spectrum, tends to get, for want of a better phrase, dumbed or watered down.

My CI software apparently includes a ‘music’ programme, but even that seems unlikely to compensate for the ultimate limitations of this type of technology when it comes to interpreting sounds of the musical variety.

I could be wrong. Music could sound OK. Or I may need to use aural rehabilitation exercises to fully appreciate it again. Speaking of which, my aural rehabilitation audiologist at Beaumont Hospital, Lesley, has already hinted that I should focus on simple, easy listening music. I don’t mind listening to ABBA or even the Bee Gees, but beyond that, my taste for middle of the road runs out. Help!

Any suggestions?

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A weird pendulum effect

It’s nearly three weeks since my operation, and I’m feeling fine. It’s still another two weeks to go before my activation, or switch-on and, suffice to say, I’m counting the days.

The scar is healing OK, and the left side of my head isn’t so sore to touch anymore. My ear is still numb, but some feeling is beginning to return.

I can’t feel the implant so much anymore now that the tight stitches are long gone, although if I shake my head, I can. The weird thing is that body of the implant is clearly heavy enough to create a slight pendulum effect even though it’s firmly riveted into my skull (I hope). Hopefully that sensation will fade too.

I miss my left ear though. There wasn’t a whole lot of hearing left, but it was still of some use, particularly for environmental sounds and in terms of having ‘stereo’. Having to rely on one ear is tough, and as my family will readily concur, my fuse is shorter these days.

The 13th September can’t come soon enough.

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What is a cochlear implant?

Ok, some context may be required here as to why I now have a computer in my head, and which is due to be booted up on 13th September.

If you’re reading this, the chances are you know something about cochlear implants, but if you don’t, here’s a reasonably succinct, 100-word explanation:

A cochlear implant consists of two parts: an internal part that is surgically inserted and wired directly into my middle ear,

and an external processor that looks very much like a hearing aid.

A conventional hearing aid works by essentially blasting sound into your ear and can work if you have enough of what is called ‘residual’ hearing. But if you don’t have enough residual hearing, or you are totally or almost totally deaf, a cochlear implant can work by sending sound information directly into your middle ear (the cochlea).  The processor takes in sound, digitises it, and sends to my cochlea in the form of electrical pulses. Because this sound sensation is totally different, it takes a bit of time to understand the sound that comes through.

If that explanation doesn’t tell you enough, here is a 300-word explanation:

A cochlear implant is a device in two parts: The first part is the internal implant that is surgically inserted into my inner ear and part of my skull. The second, external part is the processor, which looks a bit like a hearing aid. The body of the implant contains the electronics, a magnet and a long wire called an electrode. To insert it, the surgeon creates carves out a well for the body and magnet part to sit in so that it’s more or less flush with my skull. A hole is drilled into the bone behind my ear all the way into the place where my cochlea and auditory nerve live. Theses are the important parts of the hearing system that interpret sound coming in the ear. The reason my cochlea doesn’t really work properly is that the little hairs that help interpret sound and send signals to my brain are almost completely worn away or damaged. If the hairs are only partially damaged (as they had been in my case for a long time), hearing aids help by essentially amplifying sound to the point where the damaged hairs can send enough signals to the brain to interpret as sound, but if the hairs are too damaged then they can’t do much. A cochlear implant gets around this problem by essentially by-passing the normal auditory system. The external processor takes in sound, digitises it, and sends it down a round thing that sticks to my head called a coil, which in turn is kept in place on my head by the magnet in the internal implant. The implant receives this information and sends it down to the electrode as electrical pulses. The electrode contains 22 channels through which these pulses are distributed at a rate of thousands of times a second and which the brain eventually learns to interpret as sound.

So there you go.

As you can probably appreciate, the reason it’s such a big deal is because of the surgery involved, which also makes it quite an expensive procedure.

However, as prosthetics go, it’s been proven that cochlear implants today offer a bigger improvement to an implantee’s quality of life than just about any other prosthetic device, such as a hip replacement or a mechanical arm.

Over 120,000 people worldwide now have cochlear implants, which makes it one of the most widely available such prosthetics.

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