• 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

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  • Alan Martin

Updated: Oct 10

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.

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  • Alan Martin

Updated: Aug 17

Windows Ten(t)

THIS ISN’T A COLUMN I ever planned on writing. I’ve never had the grand dream of making my computer look like a ski lodge. And yet, here I am writing it, because my laptop now has more of a rustic vibe to it than any technology should have in 2019.

My Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 is now covered in wood paneling. And y’know what? I like it. Maybe this is the first step on a journey that ends with me moving to a cabin decked out with a bear skin rug and hunting trophies. If that happens you have permission to track me down and kill me. Seriously: use this post as mitigation if it goes to trial. You have my blessing.

Anyway, that’s the destination – the wooden laptop, not my eventual murder. How did I get there?

The Surface Laptop in happier times. The proximity of the world's most underwhelming Eggs Benedict was an early warning sign, to be fair.

I blame Microsoft. And Plex. Microsoft, Plex and a curry sauce, in that order. Every ingredient in this sad story, except me, naturally. It doesn’t take a genius to join the dots between these, but I’ll spell it out for you anyway. Curry sauce has a tendency to spit when heated, and the Surface has a beautiful, but wholly impractical, alcantara cover.

I can’t stay mad at the curry – it was a solid example of the paneer korma genre – but it left some unsightly yellow dots across the fabric, like my Surface laptop was cosplaying as Spotty Man from SuperTed, but got the detail slightly wrong.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t do what I did next: don’t try and scrub it out with soap and water, as you’ll replace that faint yellow dotting with a horrible brown patch instead.

The kind of brown patch that will have your colleagues wondering if freelance life is treating you so badly that you can't afford to wash your hands any more.

Microsoft would tell you that Surface care is easy for even the dirtiest of grubster. The official guidance is to clean the Alcantara "with a mild soap and water solution" within 30 minutes to "prevent any stains from setting." Fair enough, I didn't notice the dotting for a day, but the number of people with stained Surfaces on Reddit suggests I'm not the only person to find the computer not hugely practical for cleaning. I tried some fancy Alcantara cleaning products aimed at luxury car interiors. I tried diluted bleach. I tried nail polish remover. Nada.

You would have thought that Microsoft would see this coming and make the fabric easy to replace. They don't. In fact, iFixIt gave the Surface Laptop and its sequel an impressively bad 0/10 for repairability, calling it a "glue-filled monstrosity" that "literally can't be opened without destroying it."

So what's a little more glue? I began to research Surface Laptop covers, because using it in public was beginning to make me sad, as I imagined everyone nearby judging by gross palms. But the curse of Alcantara is just beginning: most places I found that sold covers would only cover up the top and bottom of the laptop, presumably because fabric repels adhesive.

Step forward the geniuses at ToastMade: a company that sprung into life via Kickstarter, narrowly clearing its target by just $368 in 2012. After some searching, it became clear that the company would bury my curry stain beneath a thin veneer of wood, and I got in touch.

The business specialises in wood and leather covers for devices. Actual wood, cut ridiculously thin, so as not to add extra heft. Despite this, its environmental credentials are pretty solid, running on 100 per cent renewable energy, and only using "responsibly grown, rainforest friendly wood and bamboo." Obviously shipping a laptop cover from Oregon to Mitcham isn't a great boon for the planet, but that's on me, not Toast.

A couple of weeks after making contact, my cover arrived, and I set to work affixing it, piece by piece, to the sullied Surface. It came in 10 pieces to cover almost every bit of exposed metal. The curved corner pieces are notched, so they bend easily without looking too angular.

Each piece has been laser cut to exactly fit the laptop or phone you order for, so there's no risk of getting things wrong. As somebody who has never, ever put on a screen protector without an unsightly bubble ruining my day, the Toast process was pretty painless. I only lined up one piece slightly incorrectly - the lid - and it exposes a tiny bit of metal at the back. But considering the metal grill behind it needs to be open anyway, it's hardly the end of the world.

It was all done within about 20 minutes, and despite my initial doubts, I really like it. So have most others who have seen it. Not everyone though:

Maybe public reactions are best saved for another day, but I can tell you one thing: I'd rather be judged as a hipster wazzock than somebody who doesn't understand why they put soap next to sinks.

Though I guess the two aren't mutually exclusive, if history repeats itself. No more Surface Laptop in the kitchen. 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.

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