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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Don’t throw money in the bin

Smart Consumer: Wasted food? You might as well throw your money in the bin . . .

A bit of forward thinking can mean big savings on shopping bills, writes John Cradden

By John Cradden

Thursday August 25 2011

When money’s tight, there’s no excuse for letting lettuce go to seed, allowing apples to go brown, or permitting potatoes to grow sprouts. And bread finds its way into more bins than should really be the case.

But the chances are that all these things happen on a regular basis in your household.

According to figures from Stop Food Waste (SFW), a campaign run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of its National Waste Prevention Programme, people in Ireland throw out 30% of the food they buy.

The EPA estimates that since households generate an average of 300kg of food waste, and costing between €2 and €4 per kilo, we are throwing out between €600 and €1,200 every year, according to Colm Gibson of the Clean Technology Centre, which manages the SFW campaign on behalf of the EPA.

As you would expect, most waste tends to be fresh items. It’s estimated that 50% of the salad leaves bought by Irish households are thrown out, while 30% of bakery items and 25% of fruit also ends up in the bin.

“If you’re throwing out food, you’re throwing out money,” says Peter McGuire of Cheapeats.ie, a popular website about buying and cooking good food for less.

1I often buy things on special offer as the value can be hard to resist. Should I ignore them?

The advice isn’t so much that you should ignore them, but that you should pay more attention to planning your weekly shop. The first step is finding out how much you eat in a typical week, so that you don’t end up buying too much.

“Don’t throw something in your trolley just because it’s on special offer,” says McGuire. “Give consideration as to whether it will actually be eaten.”

However, if you do pay more attention to quantities, you can then factor in certain special offers as part of your efforts to save.

“Planning your meals means that you can buy in bulk, taking advantage of offers and seasonal produce,” says Úna Clarke, the Cork-based tutor of a course on healthy eating called Kitchen Economics.

saving: Up to €25-30 off through special offers on a typical weekly €100 shopping bill

2I like to keep an open mind about what I eat each week, so I don’t use a shopping list.

This is where more planning comes in. If you want to try something different, get your inspiration from cookbooks or cut-out recipes and compile a shopping list accordingly.

Otherwise, your supermarket may effectively be making your decisions for you through attractive advertising and tempting special offers, particularly if you’re hungry (top tip: don’t shop when you’re hungry).

This is not to say you absolutely shouldn’t go for something that takes your fancy, but think before you buy.

“A basic shopping list is a good idea but I don’t stick rigidly to it; you might miss out on a good bargain or treat,” says McGuire.

“But still, if you’ve planned to cook approximately four meals across seven days and you buy enough to cook seven meals, consider putting some of that food back on the shelves — no matter how lovely it seems, or what a bargain it is.”

3My freezer always seems full. Is this good?

Not necessarily. Many of us have a tendency to pile it up with special offers and forget about them..

Defrosting stuff can also be awkward, particularly meat. But one good tip from the StopFoodWaste.ie website was to separate packs of meat and fish in to smaller pieces.

Doing this means you can take out the amount you need and avoid having to throw out portions.

A very full freezer is also awkward from a maintenance point of view, as you’ll need to defrost it every so often to stop ice building up and adding to energy use.

saving: 5% on your energy bill

4I’m a pretty good cook, so why do I need to change my cooking habits?

We’re not suggesting you lower your culinary ambitions, but you might consider doing more batch cooking and rethinking your attitudes to leftovers.

Batch cooking is one good way to save money: “Batch cooking allows you freeze portions for later use, so you save on fuel and can also have foods available rather than sending for a takeaway when you are stuck for time or just too tired to cook,” says Clarke.

Similarly, using up leftovers is becoming more common. “A lot of people simply can’t afford not to,” says McGuire. “Vegetables are most likely to get thrown out, but you can make a simple, easy soup from them.

“Mashed potatoes can make fishcakes or potato cakes. Fry up boiled potatoes, or use cooked veg in soup. Have leftover meat in a sandwich, and make stock from any bones.”

saving: The cost of two takeaways a week: €20-40

5It’s annoying how often I find what looks like okay food that’s past its use-by date.

There is a reason why use-by dates are on products, but you don’t need to stick rigidly to them, says McGuire.

“Use your judgment. If the milk smells and looks fine, it is. Likewise with packaged vegetables, bread, fruit, soups, condiments, and most tinned foods. Manufacturers cover themselves with early use-by and best-before dates.”

6If food truly has gone off, can I reuse it in any way?

If you pay your bin charges through a pay-by-weight system, and your bin charges average about €30 to €40 a month, you could save a lot by investing in a compost bin, because organic waste is heavy due to the high amount of water content in it.

Saving: Up to €10-15 a month

Case study

Úna Clarke, from Cork, is a trained tutor who gives courses on healthy eating that includes tips and suggestions about reducing food waste.

“I really want to place healthy eating in the context of budgeting and reducing food waste,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean higher costs, as it can actually save you money, but it does need planning and some basic information.”

One of the first messages of the course is to buy local where possible, such as your nearest butcher. “Talk to them, ask questions, get to know them and let them get to know you,” says Úna.

“Questions like how long will this keep in the fridge, how best to store it, how to cook it, is there something else cheaper, better value, or in season? This goes for the fishmonger also and the greengrocer.”

As part of her course, which is titled Kitchen Economics, Úna takes her students to the English Market in Cork city to talk to a number of the traders there.

“The English Market is always an enjoyable experience, and their passion and enthusiasm for food is catching,” she says.

Úna’s students report that they are now not buying as much, using less tinned food and jars, and using up most of the fresh food they buy.

“Even if your spend on groceries does not change immediately, if you are not throwing out food, that means that you are getting more from what you buy.”

Irish Independent

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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I’m getting a computer in my head…

As hinted in this recent article here, I’m getting a computer put into my head on 10th August. Eek. That’s like, just four days away.

Fingers crossed. More soon.

Update 16/08/2011:  Back out of hospital. All good. There’s now a computer in my head. Stitches out wed. Boot-up scheduled for 13 Sept. More soon.

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What you can save by cycling

Easy rider: Artist Liam Daly has no trouble comfortably lugging his materials around the city, thanks to his innovative cargo bike
Easy rider: Artist Liam Daly has no trouble comfortably lugging his materials around the city, thanks to his innovative cargo bike

Thursday June 30 2011

If you’re not already among those who have taken to two wheels in recent times, you won’t have to look far to find reasons why.

Beating the traffic, getting more exercise and saving money are probably the three biggest draws for this form of transportation.

For many people, though, the main pros of cycling are outweighed very strongly by the simple fear that mounting a bicycle is a sure-fire route to the pearly gates, thanks to frustrated motorists hell-bent on running you off the road, large potholes and badly designed cycle lanes.

But if you can overlook the ‘fear factor’ and see just how much cycling regularly can boost your disposable income, it might be enough to get you to give it a fair go.

After all, there is the ‘safety in numbers’ argument, i.e., the more of us who cycle, the safer it becomes.

At the moment, the bicycle accounts for only 2% of all trips to work. The Government aims to increase this to 10% by 2020 in line with the National Cycle Policy Framework.

1 Okay, fair enough. Let’s start with the most frequently asked question. How much can I save by cycling instead of driving to work?

If your commute to work is 6km each way and you drive a car that averages 35mpg (or nearly 7L/100km), then you will spend nearly €300 on petrol just for your commuting journeys over the course of a year.

Saving: €6 a week or €300 a year (based on commuting 60km a week).

2 What about short, non-commuting journeys?

Let’s say you do a four or five short journeys on the bicycle for shopping and other errands totalling about 20km each week.

That works out at about 1,000km a year (assuming you’re willing to cycle in the rain and during the winter months too). That’s another €100 a year saved in petrol costs alone.

Actually, it’s probably a bit more, since using the car for very short journeys means the engine never gets the chance to warm up properly and therefore uses more fuel than for longer journeys. So say €125.

Saving: €2 a week or €125 a year (based on 20km a week).

3 But you could also save on insurance, tax, NCT, parking and all the other costs of running a car, couldn’t you?

Well, this assumes that you don’t have a car or you plan to get rid of it. Most people who cycle to work normally do, but are choosing cycling to beat the traffic, get more exercise or even save on their car’s wear and tear. But doing away with the car altogether is probably a bridge too far for most people to pedal over. You could possibly reduce your car fleet from two to one, though.

But you’d save on parking costs at work, that’s for sure. AA Ireland estimates that the average motorist would fork out nearly €4,000 a year in parking charges, or about €75 a week (that’s probably a bit high, though).

You might also save on maintenance costs, too, since you’d be using the car a good bit less, but that’s far harder to quantify.

Saving: Up to €75 a week or €4,000 a year on parking charges.

4 I use the train/bus. What could I save there?

Okay, if you’re a commuter travelling about 8km to Dublin from Blackrock, you’ll be spending €3.70 a day on a return Dart ticket.

If we assume you work 48 weeks of the year, your train travel works out at €888 a year. Similarly, a bus user travelling into Dublin city every day from Drumcondra (4km) will fork out €792 a year.

Saving: Up to €20 a week.

5 I haven’t ridden a bike since my schooldays, but I’d like to get one now. If I use it for commuting most days, how long would it take to make my money back on buying it?

Let’s say you splash out on a new bike costing €450, along with important accessories including a helmet (€40), a decent lock or two (€50), lights (€20) and rain gear (€50). That’s over €600.

If you drive just 12km each day to work and back, you’ll make your money back on petrol costs alone in two years — shorter if your commute is longer. If you use public transport, you’ll make your money back in a lot less than 12 months.

What’s more, there is also the cycle-to-work tax-saving scheme, through which you can buy a bike and accessories worth up to €1,000 tax-free through participating employers.

Saving: Up to €510 through the cycle-to-work scheme.

6 But I can’t afford to spend €600 on a bike, even with the cycle-to-work tax scheme (which I don’t think my employer even participates in).

Well, a second-hand bike will be the way to go. There are lots for sale on online classified websites, and if you’re not sure what to look out for, bring a knowledgeable friend with you.

If you’re in Dublin, one good bike shop to try would be Rothar in Phibsborough. It’s a social enterprise that relies on volunteers to fix up old or broken bikes into very serviceable, dependable steeds for as little as €150.

7 I used to cycle, but my bikes keep getting stolen.

Yes, this is one of the serious downsides of city-based cycling, and it’s getting worse. According to the CSO, there was a 39% increase in thefts in 2009 compared to the previous year. Last year, thefts rose another 10%.

You can insure bicycles through your house insurance policy, but it may only cover theft while in the house or the garage or shed.

For this reason, it might be worth trying a dedicated cycle insurer such as Cyclesure, which can insure a bike worth €700 for about €60 a year.

This article first appeared in the Irish independent

Dublin artist Liam Daly (aka Eolai) manages to live without a car — thanks to his cargo bike. He reckons he saves at least €50 a week over running a car — or about €90 a week if he used taxis — to carry the loads he regularly hauls.

His bike is capable of carrying huge loads comfortably, and was the obvious choice when he started to look for a cargo-type bike while living in the US in 2005.

“I needed something that could comfortably carry my nine-year-old son eight miles to his school; get the weekly groceries, including a 10kg bag of dog food; accommodate canvases, frames, and art materials; take parcelled paintings to the post office; transport my dog to places beyond walking distance and hold American-sized loads of laundry,” he said. Specially designed cargo bikes are expensive, but Liam found a kit called an Xtracycle Freeradical that ingeniously converted his standard bike into a cargo bike. It costs about €500.

He brought it home to Dublin two years later and uses it every day. “Mostly it’s just a bike that I cycle around, but it fulfils all my needs, and when I find myself needing to buy a Christmas tree, a flat-packed foosball game, or a couple of large pumpkins for carving at Halloween, I don’t need to ask for help from a friend with a car.”

Liam is also about to do a “painting cycle tour of Ireland” in July and August. See bicyclistic.com for details.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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A computer in my head

LIFE SCIENCE: John Cradden, a possible candidate for cochlear implant surgery, contemplates how medical science could shape the future of human development

IT’S INTRIGUING, if slightly unnerving to think I could find myself at the vanguard of human enhancement technologies sometime after the next year or so.

That’s one of the things I learned as I walked around the TCD Science Gallery’s current show, Human+ , an exhibition of artistic interpretations of how high technology could mediate the future of the human race.

One of the questions being explored at the show is whether we are moving into a future where, rather than focusing on rehabilitating or repairing those with sensory loss or permanent disabilities, healthy humans could choose to have invasive surgical implants to “enhance” themselves or their senses.

It’s a debate that has been running in medical, educational and sporting circles for some time, and is getting more murky and complicated as technology advances.

Richard Reilly, professor of neural engineering at UCD and one of the curators of the exhibition, says that technology has an important role in maximising the abilities of people with disabilities, so “these individuals tend to be on the frontline with regard to testing of new devices”, such as cochlear or retinal implants.

Cochlear implants are nothing new, of course. Routine cochlear implantations began in the 1970s and since then have helped restore some hearing in more than 120,000 deaf people worldwide.

But while the technology has steadily improved over the years, thanks in no small part to the input of implantees, it still has some way to go before engineers will be able to replicate the quality of normal hearing.

My own hearing is broken and needs a repair. It has progressively deteriorated over the past couple of years, to the point where my hearing aids are no longer much use. So I’m currently being assessed for a cochlear implant.

But as the day approaches when cochlear implant surgeons at Beaumont hospital may be drilling out bits of my skull to insert what is essentially a computer in my head, all this cyborg-type stuff is getting quite close to the bone.

It’s reassuring that some of the most comforting insights into the subject of cochlear implants emanate from a man who has implants himself, in both ears.

In his first book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part-Computer Made Me More Human, science writer Michael Chorost tells the story of his journey from going completely deaf to being implanted with cochlear implants, and how this changed his life for the better.

“For me, the process of having to learn to hear all over again was like having a fresh start in life,” Chorost said in an online web chat. “It prompted me to re-examine the kind of life I had and the kind of life I wanted. A reboot, if you will.”

Now based in Washington DC and regularly contributing to publications such as Wired, Washington Post and MIT’s Technology Review , Chorost writes and speaks about cutting-edge science and technology research with the clarity and eloquence of a classical science writer, but he also threads in personal narratives to draw you in that bit more.

In Rebuilt, for instance, he played around with the question of whether or not he was a bona-fide cyborg as result of getting his implants (short answer: yes). However, he thinks the term has since become over-used and doesn’t mean very much any more.

“I use the word cyborg much less now,” he said. “It just feels reductive to me. It says very little about who or what I am. And it has that Ikea sound: ‘I’ll buy two cyborgs and a wockeroo . . .’ ”

But he says it proved a natural step from talking about ear implants to exploring the subject of brain implants. “If it’s possible to make a brain believe it’s hearing, what else might be possible?”

The result is his new book, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet , just published by Simon and Schuster. Already the subject of several favourable reviews by US media, the book examines what it would mean to connect human minds through technology, possibly the internet.

He discovered some fascinating neuroscientific research projects about how to extract information or decode brain activity, and based on these, he explores how new implanted technologies could, in theory, bring about brain-to-brain communication.

Brain-to-brain communication is the standard stuff of science fiction, but Chorost attempts to outline the engineering path towards feasibly realising this much-fantasised communicative ability and, more importantly, he explains how it could deepen human communication.

Yes, there are several science bits that you can’t really skip, but the surprising thing is that, even to this non-techie, Chorost makes it so readable and convincing. It’s also a very optimistic book, in marked contrast to the bleak visions on show at Human+.

Chorost also injects a useful measure of common sense into the repair versus enhancement debate. “I don’t think people with disabilities will necessarily be at the cutting edge of enhancement, because the real point of enhancement is to let people do completely new things, not things we already do,” he said.

“To put it another way, there is very little need for ears that can hear in the ultrasonic or can hear a whisper 500ft away. Humans simply have very little need for those things.” When they do, they can get those abilities with stuff from their local electronics store, he adds.

Chorost insists we are so far from any kind of enhancement that it’s nearly impossible to predict how it would happen, and gets particularly annoyed at scientists who engage in baseless fantasies about developing enhanced human abilities. “It’s a very naive fantasy. It’s like a medieval bowman wanting a super-arrow. The real advancement there came from creating entirely new weapons.”

Human+ is at the Science Gallery , Dublin until Friday, June 24th

This article first appeared in the Irish Times magazine

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Save at your local library

The world is waiting, and much of it is free, writes John Cradden

On the same page: rugby pundit Brent Pope with Emily Breslin (4) and Niamh Doherty (5)

By John Cradden

Thursday June 16 2011

The internet age means most people who need to do some research or find some information quickly go online. It’s become second nature.

Almost all of us have internet access at home so the notion of a going to a building containing physical research materials might one day seem hopelessly out of date.

Getting music or downloading an e-book is also child’s play; just click your mouse and the stuff is on your netbook or iPad in seconds.

So what, you ask, is the point of public libraries? You might wonder if the nearly 350 libraries around the country are now underused.

Not a bit of it, librarians say. According to Brendan Teeling of the Library Council, which advises Government and local authorities on their public library services, usage has soared in recent years.

And what most people don’t know is that e-books, CDs, DVDs and a host of other services are available at libraries, saving you euros that could be spent elsewhere.

“The number of visits increased by 13% between 2007 and 2009, and statistics from individual library services suggest that this increase has been maintained. The number of books being borrowed has also increased,” he said.

Just over 16 million visits are made to libraries each year. Between 2008 and 2009, library membership across the country rose 6.5% to over 810,000 people — about 18% of the population.

“Usage has definitely increased in recessionary times, but of course there are people who don’t use them who would benefit greatly if they did,” says Patricia Fitzgerald, senior development librarian at South Dublin County Libraries.

1 Before we get into the hi-tech stuff, let’s start with the old chestnut, books. How many can you borrow these days?

It depends on the library, but generally the allowance is 10 books for an adult and six for under-18s.

“If you were to buy that number of books, you’d be talking about €80 for the adult books and €40 for the kids . . . and if you or your kids are avid readers, well that’s what you’d get through,” says Fitzgerald.

“Plus it’s got the added bonus in that if you don’t like the book you’ve borrowed, well you haven’t paid any money for it, so it’s a brilliant free way to try out new authors.”

Saving: Up to €80 a month

2 But every time I borrow books, I always forget to bring them back on time. Doesn’t that mean I will get whacked with fines?

Library fines tend to be quite low but, of course, that’s no reason to take advantage.

There is such a thing as renewing books, which you can do as often as you like, within reason, and in many cases, without actually having to set foot outside your own doorstep.

“You can renew online or by using our new app for Androids, and which will be coming out very soon for iPhone,” says Fitzgerald.

3 I recently bought an Amazon Kindle e-book reader. It’s brilliant and popular titles can cost as little as €2 and up to €10, but can I ‘borrow’ e-books for free from a library?

Actually, you can. Some libraries have a facility on their websites that enable members to download the e-books to your e-reader or iPad. “Brilliant for the holliers. Imagine what that would save you on Ryanair excess baggage,” says Fitzgerald.

Once you download the relevant software, you can download e-books to your device, and they’ll stay on it for three weeks and then essentially ‘delete’ themselves. Really useful.

Saving: Up to €30 a month

4 My local DVD rental shop has cut its prices recently, but the cost of renting DVDs, Nintendo and Wii games and buying new music CDs or downloads still adds up. Don’t tell me these can also be had from libraries?

They certainly can. If you’re an average family that rents two or three DVDs a week at €4-4.50 each, that would amount to nearly €50 a month, or over €550 a year.

You can borrow DVDs for one week or CDs for three weeks from your library in the same quantities as you would books. They may not be the most up-to-date releases, but the beauty is that if you don’t like the movie, you don’t feel like you’ve wasted a few euro — only your time. Some libraries will also have Playstation or Wii games too.

Saving: €50 a month

5 I read the newspapers online most days of the week to save a few bob, but I miss the times when I could afford to buy the real thing every day.

“Magazines and newspapers are also free to use at your library . . . so in theory if your library’s handy to you, you could pop in each day to check the papers saving yourself about €14 per week,” says Fitzgerald.

“Plus no need to buy Hello! magazine etc. They’re all there, including back issues.”

Saving: Around €14 a week (if you buy a paper every day)

6 Even though I have internet access at home, I like being able to bring my laptop with me. But it’s hard to find Wi-Fi access, and when it’s available, it’s often not free any more.

It’s free in a library. An hour of web surfing at an internet café costs up to €2, sometimes more. Many libraries now have free Wi-Fi facilities, so you can bring along your laptop, Blackberry, iPad, iPhone or whatever and go online for free. Of course, if you don’t have these devices, all libraries have computers that you can use free of charge.

Saving: Up to €2 an hour

7 Libraries are supposed to be quiet. Why are they sometimes so noisy?

The days of people hissing silence are over. “Apart from all of the free things that we offer, libraries are a community space, great for meeting people, relaxing. They are a social space,” says Fitzgerald.

Thousands of events are held at libraries throughout the year. At South County Dublin libraries, for instance, you can do language classes, computer classes, craft sessions, or attend author visits, science talks and workshops, exhibitions — and all free of charge.

“An event like readers’ day, which we have in November each year and is hosted by acclaimed author Dermot Bolger, who interviews a host of prestigious writers, poets and playwrights, would normally cost about €30 admission.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Save money at music festivals

Just the ticket: Music festivals don?t have to cost the earth this summer

Thursday June 09 2011

For many music fans, the two biggest Irish open-air summer festivals, Oxegen and Electric Picnic, are not to be missed — at any cost.

But what a cost. When you factor in the cost of the ticket, drink, food, tent, transport, sleeping bag and various other essential items, most people camping out for the full duration of either Oxegen (July 7-10) or the Electric Picnic (Sept 2-4) could easily end up €500 out of pocket.

The biggest expense will be tickets and camping passes.

A three-day ticket plus camping at Oxegen (including booking fee) costs €230.85 each (a four-day one costs €251.85). A three-day no camping ticket will cost €205.85 and a day ticket is €105.85.

The Electric Picnic charges €246.35 for a weekend camping ticket, which is a good €30 cheaper than last year, while a day ticket (Sunday only) costs €105.35.

Of course, the total outlay can rise if you go for the plethora of luxury camping and accommodation options available.

For instance, you could spend up to €1,000 alone to hire a ready-pitched, full-sized and fully equipped tent, tipi or yurt package, which may or may not include sleeping bags and other equipment.

(That’s hiring by the way; you can’t even take the tents home with you.)

But serious music fans will tell you that such options are for softies anyway. Bringing your own tent and enduring the usual struggle to set it up is part of the deal at any decent open-air music festival — or at least it should be.

Of course, the key to saving money at these events but still have a good time is almost exclusively down to one thing: preparation.

1 Is it possible to find cheap or discounted tickets?

At the moment, you might be able to find discounted tickets for Oxegen or Electric Picnic by searching online-auction site eBay or other online classified sites, usually from fans who bought tickets or got them free but can’t go, for whatever reason.

For instance, one punter was selling an Oxegen four-day camping ticket on Dublin classifieds website Gumtree.ie for €150, a saving of €100, while another punter on Donedeal.ie was selling two, three-day camping tickets to the same festival for €380, a saving of €40 per ticket. Also on Donedeal.ie: €400 for a pair of two EP weekend camping tickets, a saving of €40 each.

Potential saving: Up to €100 per ticket

2 Those prices are still a bit steep. What about other festivals?

Yes, indeed, there are a number of other local weekend music festivals, such as Sligo’s Temple House Festival this weekend, where a three-day ticket with free camping access costs just €120. The line-up tends to focus on local and independent artists, but headliners this year include Ash, a reformed Stereo MCs, Lisa Hannigan and Declan O’Rourke.

Another one is Sea Sessions in the seaside town of Bundoran, Co Donegal, (June 22-24), a festival clearly aimed at surfing dudes with acts such as Bell X1, Ziggy Marley, Villagers, Ham Sandwich, O Emperor and Gemma Hayes. A weekend ticket costs €84.45, with the camping option €20 extra.

Saving: Over €100

3 Sounds alright, but I really, really want to see Arcade Fire at the EP, but I can’t afford it.

The good news is that, at the moment, the Electric Picnic is offering music fans the option to volunteer at the event in exchange for free entry. This includes access to the camping area and time out to enjoy the show.

In return, you’ll be working for a total of 24 hours over the course of the three-day event. Check out its website (electricpicnic.ie) for more details.

Any festival takes a huge amount of organisation and many are willing to offer tickets and other perks to those willing to lend a hand.

Unfortunately, Oxegen isn’t taking any volunteers as it farms out stewards or bar work to outside firms. It won’t tell you who those companies are, so a bit of detective work may be required if you’re determined to work there.

Saving: Up to €246.35, but you’ll have to work for it

4 Okay, so I’m going to bring my own tent. But I don’t have one. How much do they cost now, anyway?

Prices start from next to nothing: Dublin camping specialists Capel Camping offers a two-person dome tent for as little as €40.

Mind you, it’s clearly aimed at cash-strapped music festival kids for whom quality is far less important than cheap beer. What’s more, its clear many regard them as disposable items, as evidenced by the many dome tents left abandoned at Oxegen or Electric Picnic when the music’s over.

If you pitch your budget even a little higher, Halfords has a four-person tent ‘pack’, including some camping equipment, that used to retail at over €300 but which is now on sale from its website for just €160.

Of course, you could always borrow one from a friend or family member who might have one, saving a bundle.

Saving: At least €40

5 What’s the cheapest way to get there?

If you have the time, the cheapest way to get to the Electric Picnic this year is by bicycle. No, seriously. The ‘Tour de Picnic’ is an 80km organised cycling challenge from Dublin to Stradbally on the Friday of the EP to raise money for Temple Street Children’s University Hospital. Over 1,000 cyclists took part last year and all those who successfully completed the run got a free weekend ticket.

Besides the bicycle, there are several public and private buses available for both Oxegen and Electric Picnic starting at about €20 return.

If you’re determined to use the car, though, be sure to team up with friends and family to share the petrol costs.

Car park passes for Oxegen cost €20, but a group of four Oxygen festival goers each with weekend camping tickets can claim a free car park pass.

Car parking is free for EP, but bear in mind the greater potential for damage to be inflicted on your car by drunk and carefree festival goers, not to mention heavy traffic in and out of the venue.

Saving: Up to €300 (if you do the Tour de Picnic)

6 How can I save on food and drink?

How little or how much you spend on food or drink really depends on your own appetite for either, and how much of your own you bring with you. So it’s a hard one to quantify, really.

There’s obviously lots of alcohol involved at music festivals, but TJ Sheils, founder of music management firm Vox Pop Media, offered this thought:

“While there’s ways to bring your own booze, I’d recommend drinking less as a sure way to save money. Having worked at Oxegen and many other festivals in Ireland I can assure you that drinking less will not result in you having less fun.

“At least you’ll be saving money and you’ll remember which band you went to see and you’ll most likely enjoy the music much more. And the music is what you’re paying for.”

We also asked some fans on Twitter for some tips and got some useful ones:

“Never eat at Oxegen itself!”, said Patrick Kelly. “We got a bus into Naas in the morning and had a huge feed. Full for the day! Saves loads of money.”

“Been to many festivals,” said Cian Corbett. “95pc of money is spent on food and drink so smart packing is key. Sandwiches, beer and raingear.”

“Learn to play an instrument & play at the late-night sessions,” said ‘Crank Dub’. “People give you drink, especially drunk people.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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