Sunday, February 05, 2006

Peter Griffin: Robotic dog led Sony astray

I won't mourn Aibo, Sony's US$2000 (NZ$2900) robotic dog which attracted far more attention than it deserved and has now been put quietly to sleep.

How many hundreds of millions of yen went into the development of Aibo, which by the time of its last incarnation could ask to be fed in 15 languages, stand on one paw and give you a dog's-eye view through the video camera built into its head?

It was supposed to represent a cutting-edge electronics maker. To me, it represented what was wrong with Sony - its fascination with product lines that weren't going anywhere.

Aibo belongs to one of 15 such product categories Sony is scaling back or ditching, including its Qualia high-end TV and hi-fi products. At tech fairs, I always wanted to see Sony's new flat-screen TVs, the PS3 video games console and the Vaio computers. Instead, Sony's marketeers would roll out Aibo to cock his leg and bark.

But the move to kill the robotic dog represents something fundamental happening at Sony under its Welsh boss, Sir Howard Stringer.

The company is shaking off the fug of the past few years, during which it missed the boat on the move to flat-screen TVs, let Apple steal its crown in the music player market and completely misread the market for internet music downloads.

There seems to be renewed focus within the company, which has axed thousands of staff to compete with its Korean rivals. The figures for the last quarter, a 17.5 per cent increase in profit and a 10 per cent rise in sales, signal the start of Sony's turnaround.

After letting LG and Samsung steal market share hand-over-fist for LCD TV screens, Sony's Bravia LCDs are gaining in the US, coming out on top in terms of market share over Christmas.

Its PSP handheld gaming device, which was my favourite gadget to debut last year, is flying out the factory door at a good pace. The success of the PSP led to sales for Sony's gaming division jumping 48 per cent in the last quarter.

There are a few things ahead which could put Sony back at the top of the consumer electronics market. With the PS3, complete with its new Cell processor and Blu Ray high-definition drive, there's the opportunity to win control of the living room with an entertainment all-rounder.

Sony's move outof plasma TV manufacturing could also prove pivotal. Its major Japanese rival Panasonic is betting the farm on plasma leading the way in the flat-screen TV market. The battle for the minds of consumers over which technology is better, LCD or plasma, will be fierce.

Yes, the dog is dead, but Sony is on the comeback. It took only a handful of successes, the Walkman and PlayStation among them, to make Sony the force in electronics it became.

It may only take a few more to see it regain the innovative and commercial lead.

Matt McCarten: Next Government will need Maori Party

I have always believed a strong, independent Maori Party would be good for New Zealand and race relations.

I think the clearest example of it is that this year's Waitangi Day is likely to be the calmest yet. One of the main reasons is because Maori have a real political alternative since the last election to advance their cause.

Even the Prime Minster feels safe enough to attend and the navy is not only doing their thing at the main marae but is popping down to the bottom marae as well.

The only sour grapes are from Winston Peters and that's only because the local MP and fellow Nga Puhi Hone Harawira has upstaged him by hosting the main event. Peters' claims that the Maori Party has hijacked Waitangi is, of course, nonsense but it does show the power shift in Maori since the Maori Party came a whisker away from being the kingmakers after the last election.

Who would have thought that in a couple of years, the Maori Party would go from a ragtag bunch of street radicals to major power brokers? And not just among Maori - they are increasingly being seen as the party that will determine who will be Prime Minister after the next election.

When the Maori Party was formed, the pampered classes were screeching from their private clubs that their sky was going to fall in, that Maori radicalism was on the rise. The end of the world (at least for them) was nigh.

The wail went up that there must be "one rule for all". Nobody pointed out that any Maori (or the rest of us, for that matter) would have swapped their imaginary privileges for the unearned privileges of the blue rinse brigade any time.

At the time, I had a farmer mate of mine from Taranaki saying that if Maori got their way, then the farm his family had worked for generations would be confiscated from them. After several hours of histrionics and a few too many drinks, he finally confessed that his family's farm was given to his great-great-grandfather as payment for being part of the militia that stole it from local Maori.

The irony of his position was obviously lost on him in his inebriated state. But the uneasiness of many 'mainstream' New Zealanders was real.

Don Brash's speeches certainly rallied Pakeha fears and he even dumped his only Maori MP Georgina Te Heu Heu when she didn't show enough enthusiasm for his strategy.

But once the Maori Party won a few seats, the opportunists who masterminded the anti-Maori campaign quickly U-turned.

The post-election fawning by National was sickening and unprincipled, of course. But when power is at stake, it seems no humiliation is too much.

I spoke to a National Party strategist at the time who said that the Nats had finally got into their heads that if they ever hoped to govern, then they needed Maori.

You'll notice that since the election, we haven't heard a peep from Brash or Gerry Brownlee about Maori privilege. The lame speech from Brash at Orewa this year was pathetic.

It's just not the same, is it? A good annual Maori-bashing speech before Waitangi was something the whole country looked forward to in recent years.

This new love for Maori has now infected Act as well. Rodney Hide is swooning over how he "was looking forward to working with the Maori Party" and its four MPs were "smart and hard working". It seems the right wing parties have finally learned to count and want to make new friends.

As one Maori MP said to me: "National and Act are only sucking up to us because they need us but it stops them from attacking our people for electoral gain. That in itself is positive for Maori."

The Maori Party are on track to win all seven Maori seats at the next election. If they succeed, no one can govern without them. That means no party with an overt racist agenda will rule. Not a bad thing, I'd say.

If Waitangi goes well this weekend, most New Zealanders will breathe a sigh of relief. Who knows, the Maori Party may even pick up a few Pakeha votes next time.

Kerre Woodham: Scrutiny of famous people is fair

On the face of it, Kate Moss and Sione Lauaki don't have a lot in common. But both of them shared the same unwelcome spotlight last week as they fronted up to the police for their crimes and misdemeanours.

Moss was interviewed by British police for allegedly possessing and using cocaine.

Don't you love the straitjacket of courtroom language? There are the photos plastered all over the News of the World, showing Moss shovelling cocaine up her nose like she's shoring up a stop bank, and it's alleged? Surely she couldn't argue mistaken identity - there's only one person who looks like Kate Moss and that's Kate Moss. That's why her face has earned her a fortune - her features are unique.

Anyway, Moss appears to have got away with a caution and sectors of the British public are shrieking. Onerule for the beautiful, the rich and the famous and one for the plebs.

And that's pretty much the cry in New Zealand too, when Sione Lauaki walked away from court, after applying for diversion arising from an assault charge involving a Hamilton security consultant.

Whenever diversion is granted to first offenders, details of the case are suppressed.

A judicial veil descends, and so no one will ever know what happened that night, except the principals involved.

What the public does know though is that Lauaki got in a stoush, got charged and now may be discharged without conviction.

Naturally, there have been people saying that he only walked because he's anAll Black.

We can probably all think of a number of cases where high profile rugby players have appeared to get away with crimes for which lesser mortals would have been punished.

But surely it would be just as wrong to punish these men more harshly simply because they're rugby players.

There's a case to argue that Marc Ellis might not have got a conviction for possessing ecstasy last year were he not so well-known.

If you look at last year's police statistics, more than 39,000 people were apprehended for violent offences. Of those, about 8200 were cautioned and 400 qualified for diversion.

Their offending was at the lower end of the scale, they were first-time offenders and they were unlikely to offend again, in the judgement of the police. Lauaki ticked all of the boxes, so surely he should be given the same chance as anybody else.

Mind you, he might want to look at the companyhe keeps.

The arrogant and aggressive attitude that his minder had towards the waiting media is not terribly helpful nor is the paranoid and defensive stance taken by some of the NZRU executive, Jock Hobbs excepted, towards the media and public.

Sure, rugby players should be given a fair go but that doesn't mean they are immune from scrutiny.

And shouldn't the Chiefs have a few questions asked of their franchise culture?

In the last four years, they've had one player acquitted of assault on a woman despite the fact that the judge said there was every possibility the incident took place; another player was convicted, fined and sentenced to community service for assault and obstructing police; a stoush erupted after an end-of-year dinner for players; and now the Lauaki incident.

Maybe that's par for the course when you're an employer of physicalyoung men.

Maybe there's been provocation when it comes to the incidents mentioned. I don't know.

What I do know is asking any question surrounding the behaviour of rugby players and the culture of the profession brings down the wrath of some of the more sensitive executives.

If the players, and indeed the executives, don't like the fact that there's a downside to all the perks involved in professional rugby, then maybe they should get a job data processing in a backroom somewhere.

Then they'd be left alone.

Kerre Woodham: Our intolerance is beyond bounds

Are we becoming the most intolerant country on the planet? Maybe it's because we have to be tolerant about the big things - sex before marriage, gay rights, Asian immigration, body piercing - that we seem to have lost the plot about the small stuff.

A woman correspondent to the Herald this week demanded, in all seriousness, that there be adult-only flights so she wouldn't be bothered by ankle biters when she travelled.

North Shore residents have gone all Western Springs-like and don't want concerts at the North Shore Events Centre because the bass sound does their heads in, and I received a letter this week from a woman whose neighbour - a retired judge, he informed her - demanded her nephew stop playing basketball outside the house because the noise ruined the ambience of his evening meal.

On the one hand, parents are berated if their kids are indoors playing on computers; on the other, they are told their children aren't allowed to bounce balls, run, scream, splash or do anything that will interfere with their neighbours' enjoyment of Coro Street or Tchaikovsky's 5th.

I know other people are irritating - I would love to live the privileged and gilded existence of the truly rich and famous. It would be magical to live in a world where everything went as we wished it. However, we left that world behind when we were about three.

One of the downsides of being an adult is that we have to compromise. I would love to banish the neighbour's barking dog to the Campbell Islands - screaming children in supermarkets terrorising their parents is up there too - but until such time as we write a novel that gets on Oprah's Book Club or warble a tune that goes platinum worldwide, we're stuck with one another.

And we're going to have to develop the tolerance that will lubricate the wheels of civilisation or else society will come to a screaming halt.

Deborah Coddington: A race we're closer to winning

In April 2000, 100 carefully selected VIPs assembled for two days at Parliament to take part in a conference called "Building the Constitution".

Prime Minister Helen Clark opened the hui but pointed out it was not "elitist". Ahem. With invitees including two former Governors-General, several Maori leaders, numerous knights of the realm, a Court of Appeal judge, and assorted Parliamentarians and academics, it hardly represented your average Kiwi.

Richard Prebble accused academic Raj Vasil of "promoting apartheid" because he presented a paper suggesting New Zealand be divided into four provinces and one given to Maori for self-government. I'd say it was more like promoting ignorance but in these modern times when academics can float any barmy notion in the name of research, I'm just kind of proud that I don't have tertiary qualifications.

Organised to "shape the national debate on constitutional change in New Zealand", the conference was described as a failure (by political commentators) and a success (by the attendees).

But, despite wailing from the usual conservatives, the conference didn't bring down democracy.

Six years on and most of us have forgotten the talkback calls from Chicken-Lickens terrified that the Treaty of Waitangi would become our founding constitution.

All is well in Godzone. Our head of state is still Queen Elizabeth. We don't live in the People's Republic of Aotearoa. Our president is not Margaret Wilson.

But perhaps one focus of the conference has made some progress - our national identity.

"He iwi kotahi tatou," said Governor Hobson 166 years ago when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed - "we are all one people".

We weren't then. We weren't in 2000. And long may we always remain individuals but while researching a recent story on Maori and Pakeha relations, I realised that New Zealanders have moved a long way in terms of developing our own unique identity. We're shaking off our cultural cringe, the "overseas expert" syndrome and the obligation to be "multi-cultural" - whatever that means.

Power is no longer wielded by the archetypal white, bleeding-heart liberal, talking about "Mowdidom" with a plum in his mouth, wearing 10kg of greenstone over his suit and tie and apologising for his colonial oppressor ancestors. Most Maori, if you care to ask them, are irritated by this patronising cant.

As are Pakeha. My mother's lived in Rotorua for more than 30 years and speaks Maori. When she rings the local council and is greeted with "kia ora" she responds in the same language, asking them how they are doing and telling them to whom she wishes to speak. Silence.

Many of us railed against paying for interpreters in Parliament, having Maori translations on every piece of official letterhead (such as the deliciously appropriate Te Tari Taake for Inland Revenue) and silently fumed at endless powhiri in halls at school prizegiving ceremonies.

But Maori is an official language of New Zealand and we can hardly claim our lives have been permanently blighted because of it.

In fact, aside from the nutcases who think the true tangata whenua are Chinese, Phoenicians, or Celts because they really were here before Maori, most New Zealanders accept Maori were unfairly treated.

We may disagree about how wrongs should be righted but at least as we head into Waitangi Day 2006, we're not scared to have honest and open debate.

In 1989, the late Justice Paul Temm told an NZ Law Society Seminar that what we have going for us is "the extraordinary patience of Maori New Zealanders and the tremendous sense of fairness of Pakeha New Zealanders".

"It is reasonable to say that when New Zealanders know what the facts are, they always try to do what is fair," he said.

"One of our difficulties is that Maori New Zealanders know the facts of our history because they and their families have lived through them. Pakeha New Zealanders are generally unaware of Maori complaints and frequently show their lack of knowledge by asking somewhat plaintively 'what's the Maori on about'?"

For such a pompous fellow, Temm made quite a bit of sense but the ignorance he referred to is no longer widespread. In fact, Pakeha New Zealanders could turn and ask the likes of Temm; "what's the elite on about?"

We're growing up. Sure, we still have prejudices, pronounce judgments, refuse to be ridiculously tolerant, and remain opinionated.

But Pakeha can stop confusing politeness with cowardice and Maori no longer need to be viewed as the victim.

And that's no thanks to the politicians and academics who love organising everyone - it makes them feel important, after all.

No doubt some new MP will organise another such conference and the all usual pundits will be invited to debate highfalutin constitutional matters. Heads will nod politely in unison.

Meanwhile, out in the heartland, away from the rarified air of the Parliament Buildings, people just get on with each other.