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  • Alan Martin

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.



  • Alan Martin

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.

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. IF YOU'VE GOT an Advent calendar, it serves two purposes this year. Counting down to Christmas, but also counting down to DemocracyFest 2019 - or the 2019 United Kingdom general election, if you want to be formal.

Now that manifestos are digitally available for all to pick through, we decided it was time to get stuck in and see what the parties have to say about their plans for technology for the next five years. Here are our findings. 

Though with apologies to Nicola Sturgeon, Adam Price, Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill, Anna Soubry, Colum Eastwood and Steve Aiken, we'll only be covering parties standing across England, Wales and Scotland for the purposes of this piece. And we won't be covering Ukip, either, because now we have a 'I Can't Believe it's not Ukip' party there seems little point.

The Conservative Party: "Unleash Britain's Potential"

The phrase "Brexit done" appears 33 times in the 64 pages of the Conservative Party manifesto - and nine of those are by the end of the second page. Britain, we're told, is "like some super-green supercar blocked in the traffic," and of course only a new Tory government to replace the decade-old Tory government is the solution.   

That kind of sets the tone for the whole document, but there are some specific references to technology peppered throughout. Of these, Johnson has been most keen on shouting about broadband, which gives you an idea of how dull this manifesto really is. 

"We are Europe's technology capital, producing start-ups and success stories at a dazzling pace," the manifesto says. "But not everyone can share the benefits. We intend to bring full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025."

That's not all though: hola cloud computing tax cuts! "We will increase the tax credit rate to 13 per cent and review the definition of R&D so that important investments in cloud computing and data, which boost productivity and innovation, are also incentivised."

There's also a very vague promise to take online crimes more seriously. "We will embrace new technologies and crackdown on online crimes," the manifesto boasts. "We will create a new national cybercrime force and empower the police to safely use new technologies like biometrics and artificial intelligence, along with the use of DNA, within a strict legal framework." Will this new national crime force will just be another rebrand of CCHQ, we wonder? 

The much-maligned porn block doesn't get a mention. RIP stupid policy? Well yes, unless it's covered by this: "We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online - protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online - but at the same time defending freedom of expression and in particular recognising and defending the invaluable role of a free press." 

Yes, that was all one sentence - who will protect us from the global full-stop shortage? 

The Labour Party: "It's Time for Real Change"

The Labour Party's manifesto - "It's Time for Real Change" - has the distinction of being the only title that scans to the tune of Father and Son by Cat Stevens. A strong start.

Clocking in at 106 pages, this is the longest of the bunch and goes into a fair amount of detail, while leaving some wiggle room for interpretation. One such example: "We will enforce a legal duty of care to protect our children online, impose fines on companies that fail on online abuse and empower the public with a Charter of Digital Rights." Does this mean the porn block isn't off the table after all?

The biggest headline of the election so far, of course, is Labour's pledge to give every home and business full-fibre broadband by the year 2030. This will involve the nationalisation of parts of BT "with a jobs guarantee for all workers in existing broadband infrastructure and retail broadband work." How will this be paid for? "Taxation of multinationals, including tech giants, will pay for the operating costs of the public full-fibre network." Hmmm.

The general public seems to like the pledge but has doubts that the party can actually follow through. The Lord Ashcroft focus group on this is quite telling, with choice quotes such as "It would be like two megabytes a second, then you have to upgrade," and "next they're going to promise you three years of Greggs or something" capturing the air of scepticism.

Sadly, the Greggs pledge doesn't make the manifesto, steak bake fans. But it does touch on other interesting areas. For example, there will be "a legal right to collective consultation on the implementation of new technology in workplaces," for those concerned a robot could refresh Facebook more efficiently than them. 

Perhaps most interestingly, Labour has the most detailed cybersecurity plans. "A Labour government, ever more dependent on digital technology, will overhaul our cybersecurity by creating a co-ordinating minister and regular reviews of cyber-readiness," the manifesto says. 

"We will also review the structures and roles of the National Crime Agency, to strengthen the response to all types of economic crime, including cybercrime and fraud, and ensure a modern, technologically advanced police service that has the capacity and skills to combat online crime, supported by a new national strategy on cybercrime and fraud." 

The Liberal Democrats: "Stop Brexit, Build a Brighter Future"

"The great advancements in technology and the ever-changing nature of the world of work mean that more of us will change careers throughout our lives," reads the introduction to the 96-page Liberal Democrat manifesto - which could well prove a bad omen for leader Jo Swinson on 13 December, if the current polls are to be believed.

"Our ambition is for the UK to lead the world in ethical, inclusive new technology, including artifcial [sic.] intelligence," the manifesto says. This will include a "Lovelace Code of Ethics" to "ensure the use of personal data and artifcial [again, sic.] intelligence is unbiased, transparent and accurate, and respects privacy." It'll also convene a citizens' assembly to decide whether governments should use algorithms to make decisions, but has decided that facial recognition surveillance would be banned "immediately."

As well as a Digital Services Tax "to ensure tech giants pay their fair share," the party wants a "UK-wide target for digital literacy" and for "all products to provide a short, clear version of their terms and conditions, setting out the key facts as they relate to individuals' data and privacy." Looks like Ms Swinson hasn't read all 96 pages of the iTunes Terms and Conditions either.

Like Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems also quite fancy the idea of an online crime agency. For the yellows, this is to deal with "illegal content and activity online, such as personal fraud, revenge porn and threats and incitement to violence on social media." 

On a related note, the education section includes a pledge to "include teaching about how to use social media responsibly in our 'curriculum for life' and provide advice and support for parents on how to help their children protect themselves online."

The Lib Dems' manifesto is the first to mention the gig economy. The party says it'll establish "dependent contractor" status which provides certain employment rights which would have Uber, Deliveroo and the like worried if, y'know, the Lib Dems stood any chance of forming the next government.

Oh, and if you're playing 'broadband bingo', the Lib Dems' promise is to ensure all households have "access to superfast broadband" - a definition the party pledges as 30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload. Pretty small potatoes in the game of broadband poker we seem to be playing.

The Brexit Party: "Contract with the People"

The Brexit Party doesn't have a manifesto - instead, it has a contract. Albeit, an essentially meaningless one, given the party has stood down in all 317 Conservative-held seats and only has 274 candidates standing. In the hugely unlikely event that they win every single one, they'd be 52 seats short of an overall majority to put their plans into action. 

But what do these plans involve?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly for a party that's shop only stocks cases for the iPhone 7 and 8, said contract says very little about technology at all. 

As part of the "Brexit Dividend" (citation needed), the party promises to "invest in digital infrastructure," and amazingly this isn't about paying the ransom required to buy the www.thebrexitparty.com domain. Instead, the party says it will be offering "free base level domestic broadband in deprived regions and free Wi-Fi on all public transport." 

It also says that business taxes will be simplified to help high streets outside the M25, and this will be funded by an online sales tax. Jeff Bezos will be quaking in his boots.

The Green Party: "If Not Now, When?"

The Green Party manifesto is rhetorically titled "If Not Now, When?" which is going to prove a difficult one to answer on December 13, should the party not make an unexpected 225 gains.

If you've been having a drink every time the word "broadband" comes up, then take another shot my friend: if elected, the Green Party would "better connect rural communities through reliable broadband and mobile internet, delivered through councils who understand local connection needs." 

Otherwise, it's mainly about technological solutions to tackling climate change, as you might imagine. Though there is a bit about tackling the "big tech" control of the media, and other bits about online conduct: they plan to introduce a Digital Bill of Rights and a "regulatory framework for online harms" to make companies take responsibility for those engaging in "misogyny and online harassment."

They also namecheck Google and Amazon as examples of big companies that "exploit tax loopholes". Amusingly, the word "Amazon" comes up four times in the manifesto, but three-quarters of those refer to the Brazilian rainforest rather than the website. 

What's missing?

So that's the end of our journey, but a couple of things are conspicuous by their absence.

First of all, nobody mentions the porn block, so as we predicted, that's truly dead in the water for the time being. Secondly, the word encryption doesn't come up once despite frequent calls for Facebook to create backdoors - though you could probably read that between the lines in the stuff about online crime agencies. No mention of 5G at all, though.  

Otherwise, the main parties seem broadly on the same page with the tech and digital challenges facing the country: broadband, cybercrime, digital taxes and automation. Agreement on the problems, but the remedies will depend on who is sat in 10 Downing Street on 13 December. µ