Back in July, I was approached by an old friend to write a weekly tech column for his New Zealand startup site, theBit.

David was half of the duo who interviewed me for my job at Dennis Publishing which, aside from being the best job I've ever had, literally changed my life. That may sound like hyperbole, but it's true: there's simply no way I'd be sustainably freelance without the connections and portfolio that came from that opportunity.

So I was delighted to work with him again, especially as he actively encouraged my slightly unorthadox writing style in the early days of Alphr when the site was still finding its editorial feet (before having them stamped on by its future owners... but I somewhat bitterly digress).

While I'm still chipping in news stories for the site, for now I've written my last column, so I thought I'd catalogue them all here for posterity.

Coming up with an idea each week would always take more time than the actual writing, and I'd sometimes spend entire mornings digging around the internet for topical inspiration, worrying that I'd never come up with anything. Each time, I'd eventually finish, file, breathe a sigh of relief and then repeat the cycle all over again.

So here they are, all 28 columns, covering the full gamut of silly to serious and flippant to thoughtful. Some were syndicated to, so to mix things up a bit I've included those versions (with suitably frothy comments sections) where available.

If you like what you see and want a columnist to write regular opinion pieces for your site - well, you know how to reach me.

When Yahoo almost saved the world from Facebook - Yahoo once wanted to buy Facebook, and it's hard to imagine it ending in anything other than failure, given the company's history of ruining good brands.

Is my cryptocurrency investment really just gambling under a more professional name? - I compare my modest wins in political betting founded on knowing my stuff with my (comparitive) runaway success in crypto based on pig ignorance.

Tragedy bring out the worst of Twitter (or: you say it best when you tweet nothing at all) - An angry piece about the partisan unkindness of Twitter when faced with tragedy.

I’ve never had a VR injury, but I do have one embarrassing tech tale - You want to hear about the time I ended up nearly naked in Tooting lake for my job, right? Of course you do.

Apple’s vision of wireless-charging convenience sounds awful - In which I moan about the enormous environmental cost of making things a tiny bit more convenient.

If you're over 30, it's safer not to use emoji - A piece on the ambiguity of emoji, and how people of a certain age should just stay out (myself very much included).

Is Twitch streaming a dream career? Not for me - A look at the utterly miserable lifestyle that always-on video game streamers seem to endure.

AR-gh: Why nobody should welcome back AR glasses - I learned about the dangers of AR headsets by interviewing, of all people, a magician. Here's a recap.

Smart glasses won’t be ubiquitous until they carry an Apple logo - On a related note, here's my theory that only Apple's unique ability to normalise stupid looking things (hello AirPods) can make smart glasses mainstream.

Samsung wants to make foldables mainstream, but can a folding phone beat my apathy? - I get the point of folding phones, but I can't imagine ever actually buying one.

The Joe Rogan controversy and how Spotify may regret moving beyond music - All about Spotify and what economists call the 'sunk cost fallacy'.

If you want to change Spotify policy, first sell 120 million albums - On Adele's very minor victory over Spotify and the strange relationship modern musicians have with their art in the age of streaming.

Sorry Xiaomi: 4K smartphones are still utterly pointless - On tech's occasional persistence of chasing 'magic beans' innovations for innovation's sake.

Ron’s Gone Wrong can’t decide whether big tech is a problem or solution - In which I overthink an entertaining family-friendly movie.

Facial recognition ad tech flunks the creepiness test, but someone will make it work - It's not the companies bragging about facial recognition tech you need to worry about - it's the ones that can afford to experiment on the downlow.

What’s with all the weird tech collaborations in 2021? - In which I roast some truly ugly (and expensive) tech special editions.

Microsoft’s $100b purchase of Activision looks like crazy money - Questioning the wisdom of spending 17 times more than Disney spent on Lucasfilm on the creators of Call of Duty.

Boston Dynamics’ viral appeal is undeniable, but where will the money come from? - On the weak long-term prospects of Boston Dynamics.

Companies: stop trying to normalise mid-game snacking, please - It's just a recipe for greasy control pads, right?

Facebook is too big to tame or kill - On Facebook's continuing scandals and the strange legislative place it finds itself in.

I’m starting to hate true wireless earbuds - This is probably one of those rare occasions where my headline actually negates the need for a summary.

Why Apple should care about silly superstitions - My theory that releasing an iPhone 13 was an unnessesary risk, given peoples' superstitions around the number. Doesn't look to have hurt Apple, as it turned out, but I wasn't to know that at the time!

The iPhone 13 may be a dull update, but boring will prove to be brilliant - Still on the iPhone 13: why anybody predicting failure based on a lack of innovation hasn't been paying attention to Apple's history.

5 ways Amazon Astro is better than a real butler (and 5 ways it’s far worse) - A listacle based on Amazon's mad little Wall-E wannabe.

Why we should all rely a little less on Googling - A reliance on Google gives us a false sense of our own knowledge, researchers say, and that's just the beginning of the problems of a search addiction.

Sorry, small-handed folk – it doesn’t look like mini phones are coming back - How the world fell out of love with small phones, and even Apple can't turn it around.

The Samsung Galaxy S21 FE is still coming, but is late really better than never? - How one phone's ridiculous delays killed its chances of making a splash. Sometimes 'never' is better than 'late'.

Samsung to throw everything at the wall with Galaxy Unpacked, but will anything stick? - Another slightly dated piece given 'yes, it did stick thankyouverymuch.'

  • Alan Martin

Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet - aside from on the all-seeing eye of the Way Back Machine - there doesn't seem much harm in reposting this feature here for posterity. BECAUSE OF VARIOUS reviews and the fact that Amazon bundles Echo Dots like they're toys in packets of breakfast cereal, I've amassed quite a few smart speakers around my house. Amazon is listening to everything I do, but any concern I might have about privacy issues is always quietly reassured by one thing:

Alexa isn't very smart, is it?

Yes, it can recognise a series of words (sometimes) but play around with the order even a little and it gets confused. This is best demonstrated with guests - especially children - who highlight exactly how Alexa has trained us to talk in very stilted phrases rather than, y'know, like a human. Once you've demonstrated the concept to visitors, they fire dozens of questions at Alexa, before being ultimately underwhelmed when it keeps saying "hmmm, I don't know that one."

It's not just that it often concedes on its ignorance: like a pub quiz deadweight, it's also dangerously confident when it thinks it knows the answer, even when it's comically wrong. A while back, I was writing a Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa smarts-off - kind of like a quiz show, only with fewer people watching the sorry spectacle occur. One question I thought to ask was "How many hairs on a cat?"

The answers were really quite something. This is from Google Assistant:

"On the website, they say there are approximately 60,000 hairs per square inch on the back of a cat and approximately 100,000 per square inch on its underside."

And the same question to Alexa:

"A cat has 60,000 hairs."

It's obvious what's happened here: either Alexa has only ever seen really mangy cats, or its gone to the same website as Google Assistant, but stopped reading after the first sentence. As a result, it's roughly 39,940,000 out - give or take a few hairs.

That kind of trivia misstep isn't hugely serious, but it does make me dubious about asking Alexa's to do anything that might actually have consequences. Not a chance am I using the Just Eat or Uber apps on Amazon Echo: there's just too big a risk that me ordering a chicken wonton will result in a whole tonne of chicken showing up on my doorstep. Or ordering a taxi to Leicester Square only to find myself in an East Midlands town centre.

And it certainly makes me think twice about putting Alexa in charge of my smart home, in the same way that you don't put the village idiot in charge of emergency services. I have one smart bulb in the bedroom because there's no light switch next to my bed and I'm ridiculously clumsy. Frequently, saying "Alexa, turn off the light," leaves the light shining brightly while the Echo triumphantly lets me know that the task has been completed.

It's not even good at its main purpose in life: selling products on Amazon. There was the whole snafu where it accidentally ordered dolls houses all over America thanks to a TV news item, of course, but out of curiosity I took a look in the app to see what Alexa thinks is on my shopping list - a function of the Echo I have never, ever used. "Tidy up" and "Dog bosch" apparently. My 'to-do' list is even more baffling with its two items: "Five huxley cream" and "Put the laundry light on in America." I think I forgot to do that, but I'm not certain given it MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.

It's no wonder then that Amazon has started crowdsourcing Alexa's intelligence, inviting members of the public to come up with answers to the many questions that have left Alexa stumped. That might help a little bit (providing volunteers can resist the temptation to make Alexa recite all the words to Wild Wild West in response to serious questions), but then it's not really AI, is it? It's a cover band, singing other people's lyrics. More plain artificial than artificial intelligence.

Still, it remains a fun novelty, and it's kind of reassuring to know that Doomsday scenarios where AI takes over the world are clearly some way away. Yes, it's true that Alexa has wheedled its way into televisions, fridges, microwaves, cars and phones, but that's only one part of world domination.

The next stage is actually having the smarts to do something with that omnipresence, and Alexa answer to that question is loud and clear: "Hmmm, I don't know that one." µ

  • Alan Martin

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

I have now written an actual review for Expert Reviews, if you like your analysis a bit more formal.

I’ve always had gappy teeth. As a child it was, I think, quite endearing, but it became less so in my teens. I remember having a consultation for braces at the age of 14, but they would take a whole year, and when you’re 14 a year feels like it could easily be rounded up to ‘forever’. After this time, the dentist said, my teeth might just drift back anyway, so I decided not to bother.

That decision is one that adult Alan has resented on and off for 20 years. Looking back through my Instagram account, I’m greeted with plenty of smiling pictures, but a gap between the front teeth that you could park a truck in. Or at least a Micro Machines sized version.

That’s why with the freelance career going well*, I finally decided to spend big on Invisalign. For those unaware, Invisalign are clear retainers that are custom moulded to your teeth. You change them every couple of weeks, and each one drags your teeth a little bit closer to the perfect smile, week by week.

There are a number of advantages over conventional braces, but invisibility is the main one – hence the name. They’re transparent so it’s not clear you’re wearing anything from a distance, though they do have a weird sheen when you get up close. Here I am wearing them, so you can play a game of ‘spot the difference’:

It’s definitely working. I’m allowed to take them off for up to two hours a day, during which time I’m expected to do all my eating and (non-water) drinking. I’m getting things stuck between my front teeth for the first time in my life, which is nice proof that my teeth are actually moving and I’m not just fooling myself into thinking they are.

However, that discretion and effectiveness comes at a pretty high price: between £2,500 an £6,000 depending on how bad your teeth are. My dentist is actually at the competitively priced end, despite being award winning, so for me it’s £225 a month for 13 months – or £2,925 if you don’t have a calculator handy. Expensive, but nowhere near as pricey as I thought it might be.

But anyway, for anyone considering taking the Invisalign plunge, here are some things that you might not know going in:

You can get a single set, but it won’t save you much money

Given my troublesome teeth are on the top layer, I figured I’d only need one tray. That was an option, it turned out, but it wouldn’t have saved much money – only around two months, or £450. On top of that, the results would be worse, as the two sets wouldn’t line up as neatly. I figured if I’m spending a few thousand on this, there’s not much point of quibbling over £450.

Side note: try and get somewhere that will cap costs like mine has. Sometimes teeth are stubborn and refuse to move, and that means you might need more trays than originally estimated. If that’s the case with me, I won’t pay more than the £2,925 I’ve already agreed to spend, no matter how long it takes.

The trays aren’t painful, but they can be annoying

The best way I can describe wearing Invisalign for 22 hours a day is a feeling of a constant pressure on your teeth. This is far more obvious when you change to a new set of smaller trays, so the best advice is to put fresh sets in last thing at night alongside an Ibuprofen – that should make any discomfort vanish by the morning.

You might get a lisp at first

Your tongue (or at least mine – bit presumptuous of me to make assumptions about your tongue) is very used to the shape of the mouth, and putting plastic inside it disrupts things. As such, you may find that your speech is affected.

My speech is basically fine now, but I was advised to talk a lot to colleagues in the first week to try and grow used to my new life. As a freelancer, that proved difficult as my only colleagues are two cats.

Alcohol can be problematic

You know I said you can only take the trays out for two hours a day, and that’s supposed to involve all your eating and drinking time? Yeah, that includes alcohol: because the trays are transparent, anything but water can stain them making your teeth look awful. Coffee and red wine are especially bad for this.

I’ve found that using a straw kind of gets around the problem, but it’s a bit of a cheat and makes you look very weird. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, I was carrying a metal straw into every pub, which makes it look like I’ve mistaken pints of cider for milkshake.

You might lose weight

This isn’t just because drinking booze is an almighty pain, either. Taking the trays out and putting them back in is annoying: first you have to dig them off with your nails, then you need to carefully store them away in the carry case. Once done eating, you have to rinse the trays, clean your teeth and squeeze them back on again.

If you’re a regular snacker, this might just stop you.

So there you are. If you’re tempted and have any questions about Invisalign, do feel free to get in touch. I’m six trays down, and am due to pick up the next three sets on Thursday. I’ll be done in January 2021.

*A position that has been revised in the age of Covid 19 with freelance budgets being slashed everywhere. Fortunately I was overpaying into my tax account for some time, so was able to pay myself a bonus on 6 April… which will mostly be spent on funding the remaining nine months of Invisalign.

So hey, if you want to commission me to make those payments a bit easier to swallow, you know how to reach me.