Sunday, October 30, 2005

Link to the Future

Hey all, happy weenie day!

A quick note -- this -- is a link to a great article written about implants by Michael Chorost for Wired magazine. It's hard to sum the article up in a few sentences -- its about implants and music, the human ear and music, the process of pushing implant technology ever further, the exciting future for this technology and its a fascinating, informative read. If you don't know by now, Michael is author of the best book out there about implants -- Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. You can check out the first chapter on his website -- right here.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


So I emailed Meg other day because I had outgrown the first program on the implant – that is, my cochlear nerve was ready for a higher level of electrical stimulation. She gave me a time to come in to the clinic and quickly get a program boost.

Michael came in to the room while Meg and I waited (and waited) for the new settings to load off the computer.

“How’s your brother?” Michael asked.
“I saw him this weekend,” I said “I think he’s having a slower go at improvement because he wears a hearing aid in the other ear. I tried on his implant and its much softer than mine –“
“Wait, you tried on his implant? Don’t do that! You can get a powerful shock.”
“Yeah, I think he got one. He was driving too.”
”That’s dangerous!”
“Nah, you should see him drive. It was an improvement.”

Nevertheless, I promised never to wear someone else’s implant again. Apparently there’s a risk of a sending a shock right through my brain and that’s not a good thing -- though I recall the days of looking for drugs that could do just that. The three of us talked some more as the implant continued loading and I just want to say, my God, I’ve never met such wonderful people in my life. That has nothing to do with this next thing Michael said.

“So, Josh, I’ve been reading your blog…”

My life flashed before my eyes. My hearing life at least – this is what comes of making fun of people. What if he programs a time bomb into the thing? What if he makes it play nothing but Thriller?

“I’m sorry, Mike, truly.”
“Don’t be. Just call me Elvis from now on.”
“Uh, ok.”
“And make my home Graceland.”
”Done and done. I love Graceland.”

Fair requests, very fair. We talked some more, and it was cordial and informative, but I couldn’t wait to just beat it, beat it out of there.

I came home and Carl was giving a music lesson to a young woman. I sat down in the next room and tried to eavesdrop, and I was actually catching bits of phrases here and there. She has a test coming up, I believe. Getting to eavesdrop, man, the whole idea is thrilling – and nobody knows, that’s the key, no one suspects a thing – the deaf guy’s eavesdropping, come on, I will be able to find out everyone’s secret dreams and hopes and fears, loves and lies and…ahhh, shoot.

Well, now that I’ve run out of ways to say that my hearing’s getting better, I can say that though the sound quality of this new setting is the best yet, there is an odd little stinging in the ear and quite a bit of what I’ve come to think of as the “up-a-program” tinnitus. That is, every time there’s an implant boost, my ear rings a bit -- I may have hit a limit somewhere. But that’s alright as there are six or seven thousand other ways to program the thing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Music

Aight, people have been complaining (you know who you are you people) “Where be the blog? Why not write the blog, J? Bloggie bloggie blog?”

Well, I had my reasons for not writing. Work, school, this book I’ve been revising -- I was afraid of sounding like a broken record also. Afraid of boring y’all. I mean, here I was living in miraculousness, making one astonishing auditory improvement after the next, floored by a world I never would have dreamed possible – a world where a sense is taken away by masked gunmen and then returned unharmed, improved even; a world where loved ones fade to complete silence and then come back into life shimmering with the joy of their resuscitation, and my mind reels like a sugar-addicted child as another and another precious note of the daily symphony – ticking clocks, whispering lovers, creaking floorboards, hissing radiators, groaning refrigerators, clickclacking high heels, and the six hundred different daily delineations of ding – is revealed...all of this, I mean…big deal right? How long before the Daily Show on?

But ma insists I post. So.

Much to cover. I was remapped last Thursday. This time the change in the program was subtle. The main thing we did was tilt the implant’s program, meaning that low frequency sound was made softer and high frequency was made louder. Ninety percent of the sound of language is in low frequency speech – that’s where the vowels are. Ninety percent of the clarity of language is in high frequency – the consonants. Tilting the implant map a.k.a. emphasizing the consonants, has given voices a sharpness that was missing.

“How’s that?” said the audiologist after setting the program. (Sad to say, it was not Michael Jackson. He had been called away by an emergency. Or maybe he was just playing doctor? I apologize.)
“Nice,” I said. “How many different ways can you program this thing?”
“We haven’t even scratched the iceberg.”
”Scratched the iceberg?”
“You could come here every day for a year to reprogram the implant and we wouldn’t come close to running out of programming options.”

Meg, the audiologist, went on to explain that even though I had moved past great jumps to subtle improvements my hearing still had a lot of room to improve. My dynamic range – meaning the range from the lowest sound I could hear to the loudest I could withstand – is now only 30 decibels. Eventually that could be more than doubled. For the normal ear the dynamic range is around 100 decibels. The larger the range, the richer and sharper sound is.

Another nice thing about the implant - it eliminates the lean-in. With hearing aids, you always find yourself leaning forward to catch people’s voices. It becomes second nature, this constantly being bent halfway across the dinner table. Obviously, sometimes leaning in has benefits besides clearer hearing (“I can’t hear you….wait, let me get closer…closer…maybe…maybe your shirt’s in the way?”) but it is hard work. With the implant, the lean-in is obsolete. The implant microphone is strong enough to pick up a ticking clock from 20 feet away and a fridge powering on down the hall. The mental emphasis of hearing changes from making sure I hear what is said to making sure I understand it. That’s a big shift and clears the way for much greater comprehension.

But it doesn’t happen by itself. I need to practice more, to start listening to books on tape. I also need to somehow find more situations where I can lipread less, because that’s like cheating. Though --“Josh, why are you looking out the window?” – it’s probably not a good idea to practice during staff meetings.

It’s not all steady untroubled improvement. Emboldened by my success understanding the movie The History of Violence, I went to see a flick called Serenity, and missed every single line of dialogue. Every actor sounded like a drowning rabbit on crystal meth. There were good guys, bad guys, hyperdrive spaceships and kung-fu acrobatics, but other than that I was lost.

“I’m not sure you’re hearing better yet,” agreed Carl, my roommate, when I told him what happened.
“But you still love me?” I asked.
“Excuse me?”

Then it rained so I couldn’t wear the implant outdoors for a week. Actually, I could have, but I never got around to buying an umbrella. It rained and rained and rained, day after day after day. During the day the rain was like a furious ghost, at night, under the streetlights, it was a forced dance.

Then the clouds parted. The sun shone down. The torn trees were mended. They leaned down and said, listen. I turned on my implant and the symphony continued, right where it had left off.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

French Coffee and the King of Hearts

Hey all, another week gone by. Things are going well, what can I say? I went to the movies on Wednesday, a dark and tense flick called The History of Violence and I was able to understand maybe 50 percent of the dialogue which is a good 25 percent more than I'd been able to before the implant. When I wore hearing aids, the only movies I saw in the theatres were foreign flicks and Van Damme type shoot 'em ups,those being the only ones I could follow. Bang, bang, Monsieur,another coffee? Ah, these falling leaves remind me of our own mortality, the nukes are armed and all that. Can get dull after a while, waiting for Monsieur to figure out his wife is sleeping with his best friend and for Jet Li to stop trying to act and start snapping elbows. History of Violence, it should be pointed out, has both good coffee and snapped elbows, and you don't need to wait long for each.

I could follow the movie pretty well even though I couldn't quite decide which implant setting was best and changed it every five minutes or so. The music didn't come through the implant clearly at all, but everything else wasn't bad. Another miracle to chuck on the pile…I must be getting jaded.

At school, for each class I have two sign language interpreters, who alternate every twenty minutes. Already I don't really need them anymore, as I can follow the lectures with lipreading and the sound I'm getting, but the terps are hired through the semester, so every now and then I pretend not to follow what's being said and look to them. Don't want them to feel lonely. When class is dull, I sign with one of them about her honeymoon in Hawaii last June and her upcoming plans for a Caribbean Cruise.

It's been amazing how quickly things have changed. Last spring, I couldn't understand a word of class without the terps' help. Just five months ago almost all my communication was in sign and that language was familiar and comfortable. Now, at work, I have several clients who communicate entirely in sign and I already feel rusty,like a visitor to their world.

New York City continues to amaze. On the way to the movie Wednesday, I was walking through the Union Square Park Greenmarket and was passed by two 6-5 men in full hockey goalie gear – sticks, pads, facemasks,everything.
A man walking next to me turned in my direction with a look of disbelief.
"Only in New York," I said.
"That's nothing," he said. "If they were naked that would have been something."
"Good point."
"Naked, but still wearing the pads and the mask, you follow?"
I nodded my agreement, couldn't argue with that.

Then after the movie, I was sitting on a bench in the same park and I looked up to see a man dressed exactly like the king of hearts. A foot high crown made with vertical strips of red and white, a similarly colored jacket with poofy shoulders, and a scepter – the works.
"Evening," he said and sat down and smoked a cigar.
"Evening," I said back.
Then he stood up and whacked his scepter on the benches. Rats raced back and forth across the path.

What else? The implant is still set too dang loud, but I'm getting used to it. Keeps slipping off as my hair is getting longer. Voices clarify more and more. At some point soon, I'll start practicing hearing on the phone again, but for the time being, I'm enjoying being out of the loop, so I'm in no hurry. Blog entries will be a little less frequent now, as the major questions surrounding the implant have been answered. To recap:
Would it work? Yes.
How would it work? Well.
Are there headaches? Less and less.
What does it sound like? Clean, crisp, refracted through a computer. Clarifying every day.
And what did you learn? Well, I went to the movies on Wednesday…

If you have any questions, send them along. Otherwise, be talking to you soon.