Crossed wires

Isle of Arran seen from St Blane's

Isle of Arran seen from St Blane’s

The Cookiebite Cortex, the part of the HOH brain responsible for piecing together fragments of speech and making up fanciful interpretations of what is being said at any given time, has two error modes of output: 1. Utter Gibberish and 2. Strangely Poetic. In my experience, Utter Gibberish tends to be the default mode, and the cookiebiter owes a great debt of gratitude to the invention of written language, without which we would be condemned to an entire lifetime of people laughing at our strange turn of phrase whenever saying anything out loud.

Just occasionally, however, the Cookiebite Cortex swings into Strangely Poetic mode, in response to a series of contextual cues from its internal and external environment. I was reminded of this yesterday, as I heaved myself wearily over a stile whilst enjoying a nice country walk in the autumn sunshine. I managed to narrowly avoid ripping my trousers on the neighbouring barbed wire fence, and the brief touch of the vicious metal thorns strung from post to post stirred a long-buried memory; as a child, when I first saw a written reference to ‘barbed wire’, it took me a while to connect the concept to ‘bad wire’, my own misheard version of the name for the shin-ripping wire which lurked unseen in suburban undergrowth, waiting for its chance to painfully ensnare children who were running about after dark in places they shouldn’t…

Like mother, like daughter…

The other day, while I was listening to Mama’s light hearted chat about various aspects of her ongoing corporeal decay, she suddenly broke off and assumed an alarming air of gravity.

“Now tell me,” she said, fixing me with a steely gaze and causing me to brace myself for something potentially worrying. Fortunately, her question was quite harmless and I was able to unbrace myself and finish swallowing my mouthful of tea immediately. “How did you get your, your…er, your hearing aids?” she said. “Are they from the NHS?”

I thought she was taking an interest in my hearing, but it turned out that she thought she might need hearing aids herself and wanted to know how to go about getting them. I was delighted to have an opportunity to share my comprehensive knowledge of NHS audiology referral procedures, but wasn’t sure whether it would be needed. Knowing Mama’s lifelong propensity for poking cotton buds into her ear canals, the description of her current hearing loss sounded rather more like a bad case of earwax, so I advised her to get her ears checked by her GP. While I was talking, I noticed her leaning worryingly from side to side in her notoriously unstable motorised armchair, and I wondered what she was doing.

“Have you got two? Have you got them in just now?” she said, squinting unsuccessfully at each side of my distant head, before correcting herself. “Oh, silly me!” she tutted,  “Of course you’ve got them on, you’d need to be wearing them to get the cheap train ticket.”

I marvelled at the pensioner logic that stated I had hearing aids for the purpose of getting a discount on the train, rather than to hear things, and noted that here was yet another great thing about hearing loss I’d overlooked. I could even extend Mama’s logic to reassert my superiority when licking my wounds in bad hearing situations. The next time someone annoyed me by saying, “It’s really noisy in here, you’re lucky you can take your hearing aids out!”, I could say “Lucky I can take them out? Lucky? Pah! That’s absolutely nothing compared to the 1/3 off discount on the train for hearing aid users! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, if you think hearing loss is some kind of disadvantage!”

Mama was already in possession of a pensioner railcard, therefore didn’t need a visible pair of hearing aids to get a discount on the train.

“If it was me, I’d want the tiny wee ones that go right inside your ears”, she announced, doing an unconscious mime of how she imagined putting them in would go. She missed out the bit where you drop them on the floor several times, before treading on them by accident. Having witnessed her arthritic dexterity when narrowly avoiding slicing through the power supply cable of the electric carving knife she was using to attack a tomato at lunchtime, I decided I had to convince her that microscopic hearing aids might not be the best idea.

“You know,” I said, assuming an air of great authority, “behind the ear ones are much easier to handle if you’re ol…” I noticed a white eyebrow raise, and changed tack by adding, “personally, I don’t give a stuff about what they look like any more.”

“I can see that”, said Mama, making sure I wasn’t getting too big for my daughterly boots. She had another quick glance at my head before adding for good measure, “it’s probably a good thing you’re only able to see them from the front.”

Hands off our hearing aids!

Hands off our hearing aids

Listening to the previously inaudible gentle lapping of waves on the Isle of Bute

Cookiebite commenter Juliet has asked me to put in a shout for the AOHL ‘Hands off our hearing aids’ campaign, before the public consultation ends at midnight on 31st Jul 2014, in 6 days time.

In a nutshell, ‘North Staffordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has announced proposals to withdraw the provision of NHS-funded hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate age-related hearing loss.’ ie the majority of NHS hearing aid users, and the group who gain most benefit from them.

You can find more information from AOHL and a link to the North Staffs CCG survey here

There’s also a link to the Thunderclap campaign here for those of you on Facebook/ Twitter/ Tumblr

There’s no suggestion (yet) that anyone who currently has NHS hearing aids would have them taken away, but those of us who currently benefit owe it to the hearing aid users of tomorrow to object to this very cruel cut. Make your voice heard!

5 things to do at work which will make people suddenly need to speak to you out of the blue.

1. Run a tap.

You could have been sitting in silence all morning, but the minute you go to fill the kettle or do the dishes, people will almost be queuing up to ask you a question they could have asked just two minutes before, when you’d have been able to hear them. Now you won’t see them coming because your back is turned, and your hearing aids have digitally transformed a harmless trickle of tap water into the thunderous roar of Niagara Falls. Those who persist in trying to get your attention under these circumstances will be rewarded by the sight of you jumping out of your skin and breaking the boss’s favourite mug.

2. Look like you’re concentrating really hard during a meeting.

While your colleagues were having a laid-back coffee and dragging their heels to arrive at the meeting venue, you were already there, frantically rearranging the furniture so that you’d be able to see everyone’s face round the table. Now that the proceedings are underway, they’re all happily multi-tasking with their mobile devices, reading and writing emails, doodling, staring into space. You, on the other hand, are locked in a lipreading death stare with the Quiet Speaker, and displaying your strange predilection for writing illegible notes without looking at the page. You’re looking far too serious, what you need is for someone to whisper a series of inaudible witty asides in your ear…

3. Take your aids out to get some peace.

This one never fails, it’s as if people are psychic or have some sort of smartphone hearing aid tracking device that tells them when to pounce. With hearing aids out, you’ve finally managed to concentrate long enough to write that two line email which has eluded you all morning, and your reading glasses are no longer fighting for behind the ear space and hurting your lugs. The unexpected appearance of a question at this juncture means you’ve now got to take your glasses off to hurriedly get the aids back on again. More often than not, carrying out this operation under the quizzical gaze of a superior can result in some yellowing part of the hearing aid being left protruding embarrassingly from your ear until you next look in a mirror.

4. Open a window for some fresh air

It may well have been quiet outside since you first opened that window half an hour ago, but be assured that the moment the dustbin lorry appears at the kerb and starts its deafening crushing operation, someone will need an urgent answer to something. Especially if you’ve just taken your aids out to get some peace.

5. Walk along a corridor

The sight of a HOH person in an echoey corridor would appear irresistible to some. The individual who had no questions when you asked “Has anyone got any questions?” in a quiet room a few minutes ago will suddenly find one, and it’s now urgent. Unfortunately, in the corridor acoustic, you can’t hear it and will have to choose between looking where you are going and lipreading. In my experience, few such questions actually merit the risk of walking into door frames. Just pretend you heard and are ignoring them, it’s easier.

I Have A Dream

Nacht und Traume

One day, in a far-off digital future, all hearing aid users will be able to tune their hearing aids to their own specifications, all by themselves. Instead of just being able to choose between programmes which suit listening to the tv in quiet, conversing in a noisy restaurant, or trying to tune into a non-functioning loop, they will have access to multiple programmes tailored to individual activities in different types of acoustic spaces. They will be able to swap effortlessly between an open or closed fitting, and they will be able to prioritise music over speech if they feel like it.

Cookiebiters and reverse slopers will benefit most from this brave new world. Instead of being forced to endure a badly modified version of an algorithm designed to fit high frequency losses, they will have specially designed algorithms which will allow access to minute adjustments across the entire frequency spectrum, with smooth transitions in amplification which, for me, will mean no more terrifyingly loud keys in the C6 area of the piano keyboard. I will enjoy full harmonic resonance on the mid to lows when playing Schubert, and spend hours playing low notes with the left hand just because it sounds wonderful.

bass bung

Until that historic moment arrives, I am making do with my latest hearing aid hack for digital piano playing. The Kookybite Bass Bung® (pictured) transforms an open dome to sort of semi-closed for home musical purposes. Carved from a 60p eraser from WH Smith, it may be a little eccentric, but it works. By turning down the volume switch on my music programme, and trapping the previously lost low frequencies in my ear with the bung, the troublesome C6 zone is dampened, whilst resonance returns to the previously thin bass notes. My piano no longer sounds like the speakers are stuffed with cotton wool, and I have fallen back in love with it again after a rather prolonged playing hiatus. Naturally, speech is pretty incomprehensible with this arrangement, and your breathing becomes a bit Darth Vader, but this doesn’t matter unless you’re playing your piano in a crowded cocktail bar whilst suffering from a lung infection.

One day, when I find someone who knows anything about fitting cookie bite hearing loss, I shall get them to set up my hearing aids to do this properly, so that I can enjoy playing Schubert without the unfortunate downside of being deafened by passing cars…


Update: After finding little bits of coloured rubber everywhere, the spouse recently asked me to consider the possibility that I was going a bit mad. I am vindicated, however, by this article which very clearly and succinctly explains the shortcomings of hearing aids in relation to listening to music, and notes how important those low frequencies are. The bit in the article about the high proportion of keys on the piano sitting below the 1kHz threshold  also illustrates why the reverse sloper/ cookiebiter may be on a hiding to nothing with their piano and a default Autofit NHS hearing aid fitting…

The Cookie Bite Experiment: Hand dryers – How Loud is Loud?

Vent Axia Tempest

Experimental Equipment

1 hearing aid user equipped with a pair of NHS Oticon Spirit Zests switched to Mute

1 Health and Safety officer with official calibrated sound level meter

1 Vent Axia Tempest high speed dryer, advertised sound level 74 dB(A)

1 rectangular disabled toilet approx 15 cubic m, with bare concrete floor and ceiling, and floor to ceiling ceramic tiles on walls.


For the sake of propriety, the Health and Safety officer decided it would be prudent to keep the toilet door open during the experiment; it was important that no-one could possibly get the wrong idea when we both emerged from the toilet looking windswept and flushed from 900 Watts of Vent Axia drying power in an enclosed space.

Experimental method

With the toilet door firmly wedged open by the Health and Safety officer’s carefully positioned left foot, I skipped the first stage of my usual toilet procedure, and proceeded straight to washing my hands. When I had finished, the sound level meter was held next to my right ear and drying was commenced. I used my usual frenetic hand rubbing technique under the dryer, but left out the bit at the end where I usually clasp my wet hands in the airstream to make a novelty farting noise. I didn’t wish to undermine the gravitas of the experiment.


When operated in situ, it would seem that the Vent Axia Tempest is a little more tempestuous than its advertised 74 dB(A) output implies. In the corner of the disabled toilet at the Institute of Artistic Endeavour, the sound level measured next to my ears as I rubbed my hands under the dryer came in at a whopping 95 dB, which surprised even me. If I use a power tool in the workshop, I’m required to wear ear protection at sound levels over 80 dB.

The difference, though, is in the length of exposure. The drying time for the Tempest is 10-15 seconds, so at most I’ll only be getting a couple of minutes of ear rattling exposure a day, less if I stop drinking so much tea. From a Health and Safety perspective, no ear protection is necessary at that level, but I don’t think I particularly want to take the risk if I can avoid it.  My portion of good hearing round about 4 KHz is the bit currently holding the cookie bite speech clarity show together, and is the bit which is most vulnerable to noise damage. Dr John Drever’s hand dryer study has demonstrated alarming noise levels in the high frequencies, and that tallies with my subjective experience of ear rattling discomfort. The problem is, I don’t want to have to remove my hearing aids and put in earplugs every time I go to the toilet.

The solution? Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but I’ve now got my own secret supply of Health and Safety endorsed paper towels…


paper towels

High Speed Hand Dryers from Hell

high speed hand dryer


The environmental credentials of the new building at the Institute of Artistic Endeavour mean that paper towels are a thing of the past. Hand drying is now done the 21st century way, by noisily blasting water and germs off the hands on to the nearest wall with a high speed dryer. There is a certain morbid fascination to be had from watching the skin and veins on the back of your ageing hands being grotesquely remodelled by the airstream from a modified jet engine, but the novelty soon wears off. Especially if you wear hearing aids. High speed dryers may be quick and efficient, but they’re also very, very noisy.

They have other drawbacks as well. As I stood helplessly with toothpaste dripping from my chin, I yet again lamented the passing of the paper towel. I realised that even if it was physically possible to get my face under a dryer mounted at wheelchair height, it might not be such a good idea to get the ailing cookiebite ears that close, since the noise even at arms length feels deafening.

Irritated by this 21st century technological oversight, I surveyed the toilet cubicle for my remaining face drying options. I didn’t fancy dabbing my lips on the toilet roll balanced unhygienically on the waste pipe behind the toilet, and chose instead to have a furtive wipe on a carefully selected area of my cardigan. Far more energy efficient than a hand dryer any day, and a darn sight quieter. It even gave me an idea.

I briefly contemplated designing the world’s first towelling clothing range for hearing aid users, so that we can reserve the right to silently dry our hands by wiping them on highly absorbent trousers, but decided I look strange enough these days as it is. Trouser idea abandoned, I decided to find out if I was alone in my enforced hand drying noise misery.

A casual search on the interweb turned up a paper on this very interesting research study by Dr John Drever of Goldsmiths College London. Concerned, amongst other things, at reports of hearing aid users and children being scared witless by the noise of dryers in public toilets, Dr Drever decided to compare sound measurements of dryers made in situ, with manufacturers’ measurements made in a sound absorbing anechoic chamber. Apparently the readings taken in the hard surfaced surroundings of public toilets revealed sound levels of up to 11 times those advertised by the manufacturers. Intrigued, I decided to recreate his experiment in the fully tiled ceramic splendour of the disabled toilet at work.

Last week, I emailed the institutional Health and Safety officer to invite him to an intimate hand drying tryst in the toilet near my office. I cited Dr Drever’s study and mentioned my fears for my delicate hearing-aided ears. I was delighted to receive an almost instant offer of assistance, and the experiment was successfully conducted the same afternoon.

My experimental protocol was almost as rigorous as that for my Hearing Aids and Dental X-rays experiment, and the results just as surprising. More next week…



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