Sunday, March 19, 2006

Peter Griffin: iPod dominance challenged

As the digital audio revolution takes hold, people are increasingly asking me what's the best music player to buy and it's a question that gives me a surprisingly great deal of trouble. You see, I'd like to suggest something other than the plain old iPod but always find myself coming back to the little white box.

It's just such an easy gadget to explain - the integration with the iTunes software is seamless, its menu system is quick to navigate and there's a plethora of add-ons and accessories available for the iPod family. Given 60 seconds to cover the music player market I usually start with the iPod and rarely get past it.

That's because most people have already made up their minds before asking me - they're going to buy an iPod anyway. Their attention starts to drift when I move on to the less well-known Windows-centric range of players from Creative, Cowon, iRiver and Toshiba.

There are, however, really good alternatives to the admittedly near-perfect full-sized video iPod and I can say that with much more confidence than ever before. Toshiba's revamped family of music players is a good example.

The Japanese manufacturer has gone into flash-memory based music players for the first time with the Gigabeat Flash, which is a decent rival to the iPod Shuffle. It's dubbed as being no bigger than a Tim Tam biscuit and as a glutton for that brand of biscuit I can confirm the measurements.

It comes in 512MB (megabyte) and 1GB (gigabyte) which are on the small size capacity wise but are lightweight and can well handle the knocks and vibration walking or jogging generate.

The little Tim Tam fits in an FM radio tuner, colour screen for viewing pictures and accessing the menu and a voice recorder.

A large black plus-shaped control gives you access to the music players menu. I don't think it's as stylish as the iPod Shuffle, but the Gigabeat Flash is certainly more functional.

Toshiba's new full-sized Gigabeat X, which comes in two sizes, 30GB or 60GB is about the same dimensions as the full-sized iPod. The Gigabeats lightweight, aluminium case remains from the previous version, but the bright colour screen has been bumped up in size to 2.4 inches.

It matches the iPod for storage, has an intuitive if less-simplistic menu than the iPod and gives you good options for displaying photos and album covers. Again, the Toshiba comes with more functions FM radio tuner and voice recorder are standard features, the latter good enough to record reasonable quality audio without an external microphone.

The Gigabeat players support wma, mp3 and wav audio files which are the main formats.

A feature of the supplied software called CD RipRec lets you rip the entire contents of a CD to the Gigabeat with the push of one button. Via USB 2.0 cable, the transfers are fast. You can also drag and drop files in and out of Windows Media 10 effortlessly.

While Apple works solely with the iTunes download store which shows no promising signs of opening here any time soon, the Gigabeat supports existing download services such as Digirama, CokeTunes and Amplifier.

Like the iPod, it can also be plugged into the Xbox 360 console for the music to be played through your home theatre system and photos to be viewed on your TV.

If the Gigabeat players have one major advantage over the iPod it's their greater flexibility for those happy using Windows and Windows Media Player. To sum up, you may have one or two reasons to think twice about before automatically choosing the iPod.

Prices

Gigabeat Flash: $259 (1GB) $199 (512MB)

Gigabeat X30: $479 (30GB) X60: $629 (60GB)

Matt McCarten: Old ties with Labour hold unions back

I had a call from several union colleagues on Wednesday, asking me to lobby Maori Party MPs. My colleagues were in a tizz, as it appeared that the Maori Party caucus intended to support Wayne Mapp's private member's bill which would allow employers to sack workers in their first three months of employment.

At this late stage of the process, there was little that could be done. But the fears of my union colleagues were well founded. The "sack new workers" bill narrowly squeaked through the first stage of Parliament with the support of three of the four Maori Party MPs and National, Act, NZ First and United Future. Hone Harawira - the industrial relations spokesman for the Maori Party - voted against it. So did the Greens and Labour.

Mapp obviously convinced United Future, NZ First and most of the Maori Party caucus that his bill would help employers give inexperienced workers a chance to work. That sounds reasonable, but there is a nasty wee hook in it. Mapp's proposal is that if things don't work out the employer can "let the employee go" without the worker having any right to challenge the decision.

Current legislation allows for a trial period, but entitles a new worker to have an independent review if they have been sacked unfairly. Mapp's bill removes this basic protection.

The bill will be used by some employers to intimidate new employees. Once the evidence of how some unscrupulous employers already misuse their power to exploit vulnerable new workers becomes known in the select committee process, this unnecessary proposal should bite the dust.

But this incident does raise a concern about why the union movement seemed to be caught on the hop over this bill. One of my callers said the union link was with the Maori Party. He said the relationship was weak and he assumed that this was because the Maori Party thought that trade unions were a front for the Labour Party. He meant it as a joke, but it did raise the obvious problem for the union movement under MMP.

When the Labour Party was formed in 1916, its MPs were unionists and were unashamedly there to represent workers' interests. These days, even the most loyal left-wingers in the Labour Party would accept that the modern Labour Party is a "third way" party representing broad interests. Yet the trade union movement still puts all its eggs in one basket. Its dedication in providing funding and resources for Labour's election victory last year was impressive. I know two unions alone put six-figure sums into Labour's campaign. That's not counting the thousands of union campaign helpers provided on the ground.

While the union movement has cordial relationships with the Labour Party, it misses the reality that they no longer have a party that can govern alone. The two-party system has been replaced by MMP's multi-party system. They have to learn to count.

If the unions had given an equal amount of resources to the Greens last year, the Greens would have won at least one more seat. This would have ensured Labour would have accepted them into Cabinet. The Greens have constantly supported pro-worker policy; their inclusion in Government would have strengthened policies that help workers.

If the spadework in building the relationship with the Green Party and the Maori Party had been done before the election and some money and resources had been shared with these two parties, we would now have a Government that didn't have to rely on United Future and NZ First.

It's important that the trade union movement recognise the new reality of the political landscape. The old Labour Party fighting for workers is gone. Under MMP they will never rule in their own right. New allies need to be won over.

If we don't change our strategy we will continue to see anti-worker policies slipping through even when Labour is in power.

The trade union movement needs to have a long-term strategy of building meaningful relationships with all the parties.

It is difficult for the trade union movement to build relationships with other parties when some trade unions are formally affiliated with and fund one of their competitors. Those affiliated unions might be better off withdrawing their formal links with the Labour Party and treating all parties the same.

If the union movement wants support from political parties to oppose bills such as Mapp's, they need to be seen as being more independent of the Labour Party.

Deborah Coddington: Drug 'madness' puts lives at risk

Ken is a 40-year-old father of two children aged 5 and 7 who's been diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of cancer. In order to save his life, he's had his testicles and penis removed. He's now facing massive chemotherapy, but Ken says he'll do it because he wants to be around for his children when they're 15 and 17.

I just made that up. I don't even know if there is such a cancer, but I bet male readers have already crossed their legs. Hold that thought for a minute, guys, and imagine how you'd feel if you were told that while the state will fund the surgery, you still have to pay around $130,000 for drugs to dramatically reduce the chances of your cancer returning. Pretty mad?

Would you feel even more mad if you found the Government will fund the drug only if you wait until the cancer has spread to your brain, liver, or other organs, and you have no hope of surviving?

There can be few tasks more frustrating for a journalist than writing stories about madness.

A few weeks ago I was assigned to interview Kendall Hutchings, who, late last year, at the age of 40, was told she had a particularly vicious type of breast cancer (HER2). The treatment was harsh - both breasts amputated and a three-stage course of chemotherapy to try to stop the cancer spreading to her other organs.

How women cope with the trauma of mastectomy is beyond my comprehension. We moan about our boobs - too big, too small, ogled at by perverts, giggled about by schoolboys - but one day a doctor sits you down and says you must choose, your life or your breasts. There's no competition.

But a bilateral (or double) mastectomy isn't enough to stop HER2 cancer spreading.

Women such as Kendall - and there are hundreds throughout the country - with HER2 must undergo three courses of chemotherapy. The first is paid for by Pharmac. The second and third stages, using Taxotere and Herceptin, are not. Well, not unless the cancer has already spread to other organs and the patient has no hope of surviving. Despite four trials involving 13,000 women, Medsafe - the Ministry of Health's medicines regulator - has delayed licensing Herceptin because of concerns about "safety issues".

But if you can afford to pay privately for Herceptin - and many New Zealand women are desperately trying to raise the money to do this - the drug is considered safe.

It's also safe if you're at death's door. Crazy.

As is the bureaucratic nightmare of Pharmac, our state drug-funding agency. Beneath the Pharmac Board is the Pharmac Advisory Board, made up of one paediatrician, one psychiatrist, three general practitioners, three physicians and two pharmacologists. This board meets once every three months.

Then there are 13 expert subcommittees which provide "clinical evaluations in specialist areas", for example, diabetes, cancer, mental health, cardiovascular. Each committee has several specialist members who meet "as needed".

The committee representing consumers meets just twice a year, is chaired by Sandra Coney of Women's Health Action, and has eight members, five of whom are specialists in Maori or Pacific health.

Finally there's a new hospital pharmaceuticals advisory committee, responsible for managing hospitals' drug expenditure, whose eight members and chairman "meet on a regular basis".

But this expensive cast of thousands doesn't ensure drug-funding decisions are rapid or correct. In December Pharmac rapidly u-turned on the prostate drug Lucrin because it didn't get advice from the cancer committee. Diabetes drug Lantus applied for funding in 2004 and still no decision has been made. As National MP Dr Jackie Blue said, if this is Pharmac's definition of "quick", the agency urgently needs reviewing.

Next week Medsafe decides if Herceptin can safely be used by women in the early stages of HER2 breast cancer (which includes those who've had mastectomies and whose prognosis is already grim).

But given Pharmac's lumbering pace, there's not a lot of hope for women like Kendall Hutchings, or Anne Hayden, the Devonport woman who initiated the 17,000-signature petition presented to Parliament on Thursday.

Too many young women in New Zealand are having their breasts surgically removed in an effort to save their lives. If men's sexuality was being amputated at anything like the same rate, I doubt there would be the same lack of logic and delay over drug funding as there has been with Herceptin.

Kerre Woodham: Safe as houses in a home provided by the Government

In the olden days, or at least pre-1984, the policy on state housing was clear. If you were in a state house, it was your home. You moved into it, you kept it tidy, you cultivated a vege garden, you raised your kids in it, and eventually you died and your home became the home of another family.

The benefits of that policy were clear. If you thought of the house as your own, you'd take care of it. You'd also have a stake in the community and building communities was one of the foundation blocks of the first Labour Government.

Today, the policy is somewhat less clear. In the current political climate, the Government has to walk a tightrope between providing security of tenure and encouraging people to move into the real world of home ownership and mortgages.

The Government also has to deal with the remnants of National's housing policy. There are more than 60,000 people renting state houses, and more than 10 per cent of those are market renters - they moved into state houses during National's time, attracted by the lure of secure tenancy.

Now National's demanding to know why the Government isn't evicting those individuals camped out in state houses earning big bucks. In some cases, tenants are earning $70,000-$80,000 a year, and the top income-earner is on more than $100,000 a year.

Labour says it can't just boot those people out to make way for the 11,000 people on the state house waiting list.

Ninety-nine per cent of new tenants earn less than $300 a week and Government officials are constantly trying to encourage tenants to move on when they're ready.

The average length of tenancy of a state house is 7 1/2 years, although it's difficult to know whether tenants move to a state house in another area, or to a home in the private sector.

The Government's also hoping that initiatives like its Kiwisaver home loan package will see market renters become mortgage-holders.

Officially, it appears that the cradle-to-grave tenancy of a state house is over. But it also appears that if tenants decide to stay, no matter how their circumstances have changed or improved, there is precious little the Government can - or will - do about it.

Kerre Woodham: Know-all teens will never listen

Good luck to public health campaigners trying to warn teens of the dangers of listening to loud music. A US survey has found that the widespread use of iPods - in fact, all personal music players - is causing muffled hearing and tinnitus among young people and that's only going to get worse as they get older. Big surprise.

And they think the scary information from this survey is going to change the way teenagers listen to music? You know, and I know, that there is no way in hell the kids will listen to us when we tell them to keep it down.

If we can't persuade them to stop killing themselves in their cars, it's unlikely we'll get them to care about their ears. Did we listen? No one is more arrogant than a teenager. Their parents can warn, authority figures can threaten, case evidence can be paraded - but kids believe it will never happen to them.

And it's not a phenomenon of today's generation. We were just as tiresome and just as arrogant. I don't know how many times my mother warned me not to sunbathe for hours on end. My skin would end up like hers, she threatened. She knew people who were dying of skin cancer. I would compare my nut-brown, perfectly smooth and evenly toned teenaged skin with her middle-aged carapace, baste myself with more Hawaiian Tropical Oil and smile smugly to myself.

I was different. It was inconceivable that I would ever look like that. My breasts would stay round and perfect, my skin would be forever peachy, I took the fact that my body was in perfect working order for granted and assumed it would always be that way.

Old people were so sad. Just because they hadn't managed to keep it together didn't mean other people couldn't. And of course, inevitably, it happened.

I can still remember my first hangover. I was 23 and I thought I had a brain tumour. Previously I'd been able to drink my body weight in alcohol and wake up the next morning with the brightest of eyes and the bushiest of tails. That fateful morning, I thought I was dying.

The boobs went next. From lush, firm and magnificent to walk socks with golf balls at the bottom of them.

My poor abused skin is now wrinkled and mottled and keeping Remuera dermatologists in pleasure craft. Conversations with my friends is like a repeat of The Two Ronnies as we struggle to fill in the missing noun. Remember - you know - owns the bookstore - used to live in Wellington - had the silver Saab - went to Switzerland - on it goes.

And my daughter looks at me with the same contemptuous pity I once showed my mother, and rubs lotion into her perfect skin, and turns up the volume of her iPod.

And when I showed her the story about the damage she was doing to her ears, she listened because it was less hassle than not, and agreed equably that loud music probably would damage her ears.

And once I'd stopped droning on and got out of her space, she went back to the business of living life in the moment, without a thought for the future.