Those who knew me during our working lives at the BBC may perhaps feel that I am becoming cynical in my old age. If so, you don't have to look far for the reasons. I was born in 1942, so I don't actually remember there being a war, but I grew up in its aftermath - rationing, the mean-minded 1950s and the '13 years of Tory misrule'. I remember the Cuba missile crisis, the 'pound in your pocket', the Heath government with its rota power cuts then the four day week, Thatcher's frontal assault on social responsibility, the Falklands 'conflict', the Iran war, the decline in living standards for ordinary people, the geometric increase in corporate greed leading on to plain stealing from employees in the name of 'zero hours contracts' and so-called 'self employment' (and people actually being charged if they go sick); and now we have a country headed like the mythical lemmings* (who actually have more sense than Brexit leavers) into financial suicide by an unelected Prime Minister with no more idea what she's doing than the Downing Street cat; and the White House occupied by a retarded lying moronic sulky sociopath aided by a party prepared to accept any amount of psychotic behaviour as long as their profits aren't affected. And that's just the UK and USA.

Cynical? Perhaps.

*Lemmings don't commit suicide off cliffs. When Disney wanted to film this happening the camera crew simply pushed them off.

Bionic teeth

This article is for the benefit of anyone who has had a tooth or teeth extracted and is considering implants as a preferable alternative to dentures; I will describe in detail the process of my recent two implants so that you know what to expect. If you are squeamish about this sort of thing you may not care to read on.

I had a missing tooth in my lower jaw for many years - the third from the back (not counting the missing wisdom tooth) on the right hand side. This hadn’t been a problem (apart from the occasional hazel nut getting stuck in it), but a year or so back it became apparent that the tooth behind it had decayed below the gum line and needed to be removed. This was done, leaving me with two missing teeth and just the very back one (a gold crown).

I have a dental bridge elsewhere but it didn’t seem suitable for a large gap, and also has the disadvantage of requiring otherwise unnecessary filing of an otherwise healthy tooth. The obvious solution was a plate (dentures) but I was very anxious to avoid this. I’d had a temporary plate in the past prior to bridgework, and it was a real nuisance - for one thing it kept falling out - and though permanent dentures are rather better they are still a nuisance.

So implants seemed the way to go, though it’s a very expensive option - around £2000 per tooth. The idea of having holes drilled into your jaw is a bit alarming at first, but as I shall describe it’s not nearly the problem it appears to be at first sight.

It’s quite a long process. The extraction was done in June 2014. It was then necessary to allow plenty of time for the jaw to heal and fill in the hole in the bone. (I was advised to eat plenty of cheese and take vitamin supplements in order to get a good calcium intake to aid the healing). After three months, in September 2014, I went for a CT scan at an address just off Harley Street in central London. This is a sort of 3-D x-ray, allowing the dentist to assess whether the bone is suitable for the implants and to measure the space available so as to decide the diameter and length of the implants.

We had a consultation about it, then the actual implants were fitted in October. It’s important to avoid infection, so I had to take a large dose of an antibiotic a couple of hours before the procedure, and a week’s dose at normal levels of the antibiotic. No alcohol allowed for a fortnight after the procedure, and salt mouthwashes three times a day for the same period.

There are always risks with any invasive procedure, but they are minimal. I was warned that there is a nerve running along the lower jaw just below where the implants would be and there was a tiny risk of this being upset, leading to possible tingling or even a loss of feeling for a time. In very rare cases this might be permanent. In the event I had no such problem.

The actual procedure is not of course painful, with a local anaesthetic. In fact the worst problem I had was the strain on my neck being in position for over an hour and a half. I asked for a prop to be used to keep my mouth open since I’d had problems with jaw-ache in the past after having to hold my mouth open for a long time.

The gum has to be cut back to allow access to the bone. The holes are made starting with a very narrow drill and working slowly up in tiny fractions of a millimetre. This is a slow business, taking about 45 minutes for each implant. The implants are externally and internally threaded, and are screwed slowly into the holes using what is in effect a ratchet Allen key. When this is done an ‘abutment’ may be fitted - this is a collar on top of the implant with a threaded rod beneath it which is screwed into the threaded hole inside the implant. Sometimes this can be done immediately, as was the case with one of my implants, sometimes it’s left until rather later. I don’t know what the reason was for not doing my second implant.

This X-ray shows the implants in place, with the abutment on the rear tooth (left-hand in the image). The implant without the abutment is below the gum line (the gum doesn’t show in the X-ray), the top of the abutment on the other implant is just level with the gum. The gum was then sewn back over the implants, leaving stitching visible. Again, this isn’t as alarming as it sounds - the gum heals very quickly and I had very little pain with it once the anaesthetic had worn off.

I then had to wait another five months for the bone to heal round the implants. In the meantime the gum was a bit tender if something hard got into it, so I had to be careful about chewing, but it rapidly settled down and I had very little discomfort.

In March 2015 the second abutment was screwed into place, and an impression taken so that the laboratory could construct the crowns. I could have had the crowns fitted a fortnight later, but because I had other things going on I waited until April.

The abutments were unscrewed and discarded, and a small tube with an internal screw was fitted on top of each implant, with the internal screw being screwed down into the implants so that the tubes protruded above the implants for a few millimeters. The actual crowns were then glued onto the tube. As with ordinary crowns, the glue is strong enough to withstand normal eating, but the dentist can remove the crowns if necessary for any reason. However I was warned not to use dental floss, unless I pulled it through from one side - never to pull it upwards as this might place too much strain on the crown.

The photo shows the two crowns, indicated by the arrows, in front of the existing gold crown. I can treat the teeth entirely as normal. It took a little getting used to, as there had been a large gap there for almost a year. At first I kept biting my tongue as it strayed into what had been the space, but this settled down after a week or so. Because the gum beneath the teeth has receded, the teeth seem to stick out slightly and the inner lip feels as if there was something stuck to them - you get used to this. It does rather tend to trap food, so that careful cleaning is necessary. There is a slightly odd effect on the texture of some foods as the lower teeth obviously have no feeling - it’s not very strong, many people don’t notice it, and of course it doesn’t affect the actual taste.

If you want to avoid dentures, and can afford the considerable expense, I can recommend this procedure. It’s well established, and as long as your dentist is competent you are unlikely to have any problems. There is some inconvenience involved (not least no alcohol for at least two weeks - a month in my case) but the inconvenience of dentures is permanent.

Why has Apple afflicted me?

A recent explosion of whining in the Apple Discussion forums inspired me to parody one of my favourite poems:

A friend told me my Mac had a virus
I installed Mackeeper immediately
Now I can't get into any website
Why has Apple afflicted me?

I refuse to pay for my business email
I use iCloud because it's free
Now it's not working and I'm losing money
Why has Apple afflicted me?

I browse in iTunes instead of working
I do it where my boss can't see
Now it's offline and I can't purchase music
Why has Apple afflicted me?

I bought a phone from a dubious man
In a scruffy market and for a cheap fee
Now it's been locked and I cannot unlock it
Why has Apple afflicted me?

(Apologies to Rudyard Kipling:

i-Phone Ad-vice In-verse

Do not lend your iPhone to your brother.
Your sister, your girl-friend, your dog or your mother.
As surely as one and one make up two
They will do something certain to spoil it for you.
They will set up a password they'll promptly forget
And have no idea how to help you reset.
You wouldn't dare lend them a toothbrush you own -
In heaven's name why would you lend them your phone?

And while we are on this, a point to expand -
It's dodgy to buy an iPhone second-hand.
It's amazing how many will buy, when they can,
In a bar, going cheap, from some dubious man.
All too often the phone has been locked with a PIN:
When you try to get started you cannot get in.
The person who locked can unlock in a tick,
But if you can't find them - you've just bought a brick.

Do you remember...

From time to time a post appears on Facebook inviting people to identify a 45rpm record centre from its silhouette, which supposedly only older people would recognize (though they are in fact still available). I can improve on that - how many people remember these once common items? -

BLUE BAG - a small bag containing a blue block or liquid, placed with your washing to whiten it before the availability of modern detergents. Also good for placing on wasp or bee stings (not both, I can’t remember which it is).

RATION BOOKS - used during World War 2 and for several years thereafter to ration food. Sweets were still rationed into the early 1950s if I remember correctly.

IDENTITY CARDS - simple cards issued during World War 2. I still have mine.

DOCTOR COLLIS BROWNE’S CHLORODYNE MIXTURE - a over-the-counter pain reliever containing laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), tincture of cannabis, and chloroform (!) - subsequently and unsurprisingly banned for safety reasons.

PEDOSCOPE - an X-ray machine used in shoe shops to let you see how well your feet fitted into the shoes. Banned for safety reasons.

MANGLE - a common household appliance for wringing out washing before spin dryers became available.

CASH ‘RAILWAY’ - an overhead wire along which small containers ran, used in shops to carry cash between the counter and the accountant.

LAMP-LIGHTER - a person going round the streets with a long pole turning the gas streetlights on at dusk. One of my neighbours did this for her nearest lamp and was paid a small stipend by the council for doing so.

WIND-UP GRAMOPHONE - listening to a symphony required not only changing the record every four minutes but winding up the spring.

Tap and Pay, eh?

I’m fed up with cash. You land up with a purse full of small change making holes in your pockets. So making small purchases in a ‘cashless’ manner seemed a really good idea.

MasterCard, and several other issuers, are making a big thing about ‘Tap and Pay’ contactless cards. The idea is that for purchases up to £15 you simply tap the card on the reader - no need to enter your PIN - and the transaction is complete. For larger purchases you use your PIN in the usual way.

My bank does a debit card with this facility but I declined it because I don’t want my bank statement cluttered up with a lot of small items. So it seemed an ideal solution when I discovered the
Orange prepay cash card. With this, you add money to the card (in much the same way as topping up a mobile phone) and then the purchases are drawn from that. This means you only have to keep track of the transfers to the card, not each little purchase. An excellent idea (and incidentally you don’t have to have an Orange mobile phone to use it).

Mastercard, who actually provide the service, and Orange push the idea that you can use it almost everywhere to save using cash. Unfortunately it turns out to be not as simple as that. The supermarkets will accept it, though I’ve only been able to use Tap and Pay in Boots and Waitrose: Sainsbury’s doesn’t have it, Iceland supposedly does though it wasn’t working. Marks and Spencers do, though my food purchases there are usually well over £15.

But the very area where you most want to use it - small retailers - turns out to be useless. My local Londis wanted to add 75p to a £1.80 purchase for use of the card (and remember it’s a debit card, not a credit card); my newsagent wanted to add 60p. The Russian delicatessen where I get my bread (I hate supermarket bread) won’t allow use of a card below £5. The newsagent told me that she was charged by Mastercard for the use of the facility. I don’t know whether this is true or these shops are just adding the charge because they don’t want to be bothered with it.

Mastercard’s UK site doesn’t say anything about this. (I rang Orange but they never got back to me.) The FAQs on Mastercard’s USA site deals with this question and says that though added charges for credit cards are acceptable, merchants are not allowed to add a charge to debit cards. What the rules are in the UK I don’t know: Mastercard don’t provide contact details and tell you to contact your issuer (and Orange haven’t responded...)

So until this is sorted out this idea isn’t going anywhere much. I still use the card in Sainsbury’s and other shops where there isn’t a charge, as even with the need to enter the PIN it saves using cash: but small retailers are effectively rendering the entire process useless and Mastercard need to get their act together.

The BBC, the Bookings computer, and the Parliamentary Committee

I can tell this story without breaching confidentiality because it’s already a matter of public record. I worked for the BBC World Service in a department of Studio Managers (sound mixers, studio operations, and so on) - on any one day about 70 people would be on duty, handling a range of transmissions and recordings in 40-odd languages and a like number of studios - so several hundred commitments each day.

Matching commitments to Studio Managers so that people with the appropriate skills were matched to the appropriate commitments was done by very skilled ‘Allocators’ - not a job I would have liked to attempt.

Around the late 1980s, the Management thought up the idea that these expensive allocators could be replaced by a computer which would automatically allocate Studio Managers (SMs) to commitments. A firm of computer consultants was hired to create the programming.

They breezed in, confident that they could do this easily. They examined the requirements (rather cursorily, I suspect) and started work. Objections from the Allocators that they were ignoring certain potential problems were met with ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’.

On of my colleagues was incarcerated in a small office for weeks, drawing up a list of commitments and another of SMs, and attaching a ‘skill’ level in each case.

And guess what: it never worked. It never came anywhere near working. We had a terminal in the duty office which contained nothing more than the staff addresses (which we had on a card index) and that was unplugged when one of my colleagues objected to it (I think because it also contained the staff numbers).

In the end it disappeared into the stationery cupboard and was never switched on again.

All this cost a horrendous amount of money, to the point where some time in the early 1990s Our Masters were summoned to a Parliamentary Committee to explain themselves. Some of us watched a video tape of this in the duty office... it was most enjoyable to watch senior management looking very uncomfortable.

All very amusing so far, but then it suddenly got hilarious. One of the MPs on the committee obviously thought he was Perry Mason, because he started asking ‘penetrating’ questions, the first of which was ‘Did the BBC employ any foreign nationals’...

Well obviously we did, hundreds of them... and he knew this perfectly well. What he was trying on was to get evidence for his pet theory, which was that all these irresponsible foreigners would go into studios and broadcast their own propaganda, and the people running the language services, being English, wouldn’t understand the language and so wouldn’t know what was happening.

All this was of course arrant nonsense, and by this time we were all laughing hysterically and hanging onto the furniture.

I don’t know who this MP was. I hope he was never put in charge of anything.

The Monty Hall 'problem' is simple

A long article on the BBC website about the ‘Monty Hall’ problem - a favourite mathematical brain-teaser - once again suggests you need to be a mathematical genius to understand it:

Monty Hall problem: The probability puzzle that makes your head melt

(Monty Hall is a game show host.) Basically, say you have three boxes - two containing goats and one containing a Caddilac. You pick one of the boxes (but don’t open it, so you don’t know what’s in it). Monty opens the one of the other boxes which he knows contains a goat, and asks you would you like to stick with the box you have or choose the other one.

What are your chances of winning the Cadillac if you decide to switch boxes? Most people say 50-50, but actually it’s 2 out of 3 in favour if you switch. The reason for this is what causes people to go into a spin.

However the problem is deliberately made difficult by leading you to think of both goats as the same. If one goat is black and one is white, then you have three possible paths.
1. If you picked the white goat, Monty will reveal the black goat and the other box contains the Caddilac.
2. If you picked the black goat, Monty will reveal the white goat and the other box contains the Caddilac.
3. If you picked the Caddilac, Monty will reveal one of the goats, and the other box contains the other goat.
So choosing to switch gives you two chances out of three of getting the Caddilac.
Of course in reality it's meaningless for one attempt. If you make 30 attempts and always choose to change, you would win 20 times or thereabouts. But if you only have one go then though you are more likely to get the cadillac by changing, that will be no consolation if you land up with the goat (either of them).

Better broadband

On January 17th I complained about not getting the broadband speeds from Virgin that I was paying for. In a spirit of fairness, I should now report - even though it make a boring story - that on the whole things are now much better. I can test out very close to 100Mb/s, though there are occasional slower patches. So things have settled down: I’m due for an upgrade to 120Mb/s sometime in the autumn, which should be interesting (though in practice it won’t make much difference to ordinary browsing) - however the upload speed will be doubled to 10Mb/s which will be useful.

When failure was a good thing

The current news buzz about school students and their exam results - success and disappointments both - inspired me to remember when my own failure to get good results proved, in the long run, a blessing.

In 1961 I took A Level Physics and Maths for Science. I passed the Physics, but failed the Maths for Science.

Now, if I had passed that, I would have taken up the place I was conditionally offered at Southampton University to study ‘Light Electrical Engineering’ - what we now call ‘Electronics’ (‘Heavy Electrical Engineering’ being motors and the like). My estimate is that I would never have made it through the course, and would have been slung out after the first year. It was, with hindsight, a wrong road to be going down.

As it was, the Careers Master suggested the BBC as they would take me as a Technical Operator on one A-level. I joined Bush House Control Room, and after six years there was an amalgamation and I became a Studio Manager (sound mixer, etc.). This job proved a suitable place for my peculiar mix of talents; it didn’t make me rich, and there were certainly downsides to it, but on the whole it was probably the best place I could have been.

And if I’d passed Maths For Science there would probably have been no BBC career in any form, I would never have written six books, and my life would have been so different that I can’t begin to conceive what it would have been like.

Failure can be success sometimes.