Mix tapes and cardboard stereos: six novel hi-fi gift ideas for the silly season

It’s nearly the end of November, which means it’s

a. time for the final blog post in our Be Entertained series, and

b. getting uncomfortably close to Christmas.

So let’s say you’ve already got your loved ones some rugs for the walls, a digital TV box, their favourite album on vinyl and a copy of Simon Sweetman’s On Song. What else can you get for the audio/visual/music/tv buff who has everything?

Here are some novel, hi-tech gift suggestions I’ve stumbled upon in the last couple of months:

 

USB mix tape

Nothing says “I like you” better than a good old-fashioned mix tape.

What’s that? Mix tapes are so 1990s? Not so fast, Alvin Toffler. These are mix tapes for the 21st Century: PC and Mac compatible cassette-shaped USB drives.

At 128mb they hold an average of 15 songs each – so you’ll have to do what we all had to do way back when and choose your playlist carefully. This is good; the lucky recipient should know every song was picked for a special reason, not receive a few thousand tracks because you had a few gigabytes to fill.

Once you have lovingly clicked and dragged your playlist onto the USB drive, use the accompanying stickers to personalise the tape (we recommend smileys and hearts), write the songs on the label, put it in the case and sneak it into his or her schoolbag between classes. You’re welcome.

 

TV flip-out mount

People often complain about the ‘trash’ they see on television. Hidden Vision has the solution: a TV mount that doubles as a picture frame. Perfect for those who can’t afford The Arts Channel.

Apart from being discreet and great space savers, these mounts are extremely flexible too. With the extended flip out mechanism you can watch your favourite show in bed all ergonomically friendly-like. Buy one for a friend and watch them flip out! (They can have that slogan for free.)

 

Cardboard Berlin Boombox

JFK once said “ich bin ein Berliner” – and now you can party like ein Berliner with this rather retro contraption. It’s an eighties-style boombox for your iPod/mp3 player/anything with a headphone jack.

It’s is extremely easy to assemble, sounds great and – as the shell is made entirely out of cardboard – it’ll rest lightly on your shoulder as you strut down the seitengasse.

 

Universal remotes

Logitech Harmony Universal Remote

The old universal remotes were almost as bulky as your TV set. Now Logitech has made one that looks much like a fancy new cell phone – except you can’t make a call on it. Actually, that makes it exactly like those fancy new cell phones.

The Logitech Harmony 1100i has a touch screen that makes it insanely easy to pick and choose which gadgets you wish to control, and in what order. It can control up to fifteen different devices – no more trying to pick the right remote from a police-style lineup.

This remote is compatible with 225,000 different audio/video/gaming machines, so unless you bought your stereo from a Sandy Island Sasquatch you’re probably going to be ok. At $499 this model costs about as much as a decent television; if you feel you can live without the touchscreen Logitech has cheaper versions for $39.90 upwards.

 

Bluetooth showerhead

Moxie bluetooth showerhead

Fact: some people should never, ever sing. Not even while alone in the shower. As one of those people I prefer to listen to music in the bathroom – but I’m sick and tired of being electrocuted in the process.

That’s where the new Kohler Moxie Showerhead comes in. It’ll play audio from any Bluetooth-enabled device – be it a smartphone or tablet – from a maximum of 32 feet away.

The shower pressure is great, and the wireless speaker will help keep you entertained for up to seven hours. What it can’t help you with are the resulting wrinkles and angry, unclean, flatmates.

 

Diversionary doormats

Now you’ve splashed out on all these gifts, and decided to keep them all for yourself, one of these tricky doormats will come in handy. Simply place it outside your front door and friends/family/shifty burglar types will never suspect a thing, other than to assume your neighbo(u)rs are American.

How about you: got any unique stocking fillers you’d like to share? Tell us about them in the comments or on Facebook – and be sure to enter our TV competition if you haven’t already.

A special thanks goes to everyone who helped with our Be Entertained series, especially Shane Taylor, Simon Sweetman and Paul Brislen. They are experts in their field and I for one learned a whole heap.

Next week we’ll be back to looking at something no expert can agree on – New Zealand’s real estate market.

Share frustration part 2: what to watch until your TV set catches up

In the last episode we looked at the problems with the file-sharing law, the root cause of illegal downloading (two words: justifiable impatience) and how Mediaworks, through Fast Four and other initiatives, is modernising our viewing habits.

Life is good if you’re a fan of yellow cartoon families or turncoat patriots. The rest of us law-abiding citizens, however, must continue to wait, and wait, and wait.

Is there another, still legal, way to watch our shows? We compiled a list of possible alternatives and sent them Paul Brislen’s way.

Paul’s response: “Of the options you identify only Quickflix is a true alternative. If you look at Apple TV in NZ you’ll find there’s no actual television in there, just movies. Same with Google TV, and the others (Hulu and Netflix in particular) are blocked from New Zealand use because technically they’re only supposed to be available in the US.”

He’s right, you know. At least these options provide some alternative entertainment while we await a truly flexible broadcasting model. And the nominees are:

Apple TV

“Round-the-clock access to endless entertainment” is Apple’s description of their service. The tiny little box links to a big selection of new release and older films to rent for 30 days. Once you press play the rental expires after 48 hours.

As Paul said, you can’t actually stream any TV on Apple TV with the exception of ice hockey (players’ strike permitting) and Major League Baseball (next year for sure, Mariners!).

If you’re after movies, YouTube, and iPad/iPod/iPhone content in 1080p HD, Apple TV is a great buy at $170.

Quickflix

For $14.99 a month Quickflix provides access to a big back catalogue of movies and some old BBC shows.

This is great if you want to rewatch Blackadder or Bob the Builder; not so flash if you’re after new stuff. On the plus side you can pay a little extra to watch films from the same day they’re released on DVD.

It’s some competition at least, and that’s always a good thing. Plus, if you’re on Orcon or Slingshot, watching them doesn’t count toward your data cap.

UPDATE: Just after pressing ‘Publish’, news that Quickflix is in big trouble hit the headlines. Share trading has been halted as the execs clash over the company’s future direction. It would be a real shame if it was to collapse, so fingers crossed. This NBR article outlines the issue and also looks at the pitfalls of TV content being tied up in exclusive deals.

TVNZ/TV3/Four On Demand/iSky

Network-provided services that lets you watch your shows, online, at a time of your choosing. Unless you want to watch it outside the specified time period.

In a big step forward, TVNZ has just announced their On Demand service will be available on Samsung Smart televisions by the end of the year and on mobiles and tablets in early 2013.

iTunes

An ‘oldie’ but still a goodie. Aside from a tonne of music, you can also rent or buy movies and download podcasts. Once again, though, good luck finding any television shows on there.

Dropping a bowling ball through your television set

Not particularly constructive, but it looks mighty therapeutic.

Is there anything else we can do? Anything at all?

“You can of course,” says Paul, “play silly buggers with DNS settings or set up a VPN tunnel to the US and pretend to have a US IP address to gain access – but I find that just prolongs the nonsense.

“The sooner they learn that we want the content and are willing to go out and get it the better.”

There lies the crux of this matter. When networks can broadcast live sport, and TV3 and Four can play some shows hours behind the States, there’s no reason why we should have to jump through hoops or break the law to see our shows, online, at a time that suits us.

Certain things will help speed this process along. Much faster broadband than we have now would be nice. Akamai’s State of the Internet report for the first quarter of 2012 has us ranked sixth in Asia-Pacific for average connection speed and 46th globally. We’re 10% faster than in 2011, and the Ultra-Fast Broadband scheme means the only way is up.

If the networks’ stranglehold was loosened maybe we’d see NetFlix and Hulu arrive here. Apple TV could start offering, oh I don’t know, TV shows, and Quickflix could further expand their range.

When announcing their mobile On Demand plans, TVNZ’s Tom Cotter said their aim was to “make it easier to watch TV than it is to steal it.” If TVNZ combined this with something like Fast Four, they may find themselves closer to this goal than anyone.

It is getting better, thanks to those who are fighting the good fight.

It just could be so much better still. If copyright holders are serious about protecting their intellectual property then they’ll change things up – and that will, over time, reverberate down the chain to us, the justifiably impatient consumers.

The 2012 solar eclipse in photos

Social media went a little crazy yesterday morning as people all over New Zealand shared their photos of the partial solar eclipse that flew over us. Fair enough too, as we won’t get another decent eclipse until 22 September 2025, and I’m pretty sure I have a hair appointment that day.

Our Open2view photographers got pretty excited too – and not because of the chance to take twilight photos in the morning – and they snapped some fantastic eclipse pics of their own.

Here are some of the best – as always click on a pic to get the slideshow started.

Share frustration: the state of television, and why people illegally download

pirate

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or on dial up, you would have heard of the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act (2011), aka “that pesky illegal downloading law”.

In short, get caught downloading or sharing copyrighted material three times and you’re in trouble.

The reality is more complicated. The account owner, in the eyes of the law, is culpable, even if it’s their child/customer/total stranger who did the deed. The onus of proof falls on the alleged offender, rather than the authorities as it would with any other law. This excellent op-ed from Juha Saarinen contains real life examples of both scenarios.

The $25 fee for copyright holders is supposed to reduce the number of frivolous charges against all and sundry, but the fact remains the law is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

This is not an endorsement of illegal downloading. It’s unfair to take revenue from those who have created intellectual property – say, for example, Flight of the Conchords. It’s even unfair to take revenue from nonintellectual property, like, say, The Ridges.

The problem in New Zealand, in terms of television, is less an unwillingness to pay for content but more about a poor broadcasting model where people must wait months, sometimes longer, for content to make it over from the US and the UK.

For too long our broadcasters have drip-fed us shows at a time of their choosing (Chris Philpott’s frustration at this model makes for illuminating and fun reading).

Hey, they own the rights so what they do is up to them. It just isn’t compatible with 21st Century viewing habits. It’s about as clever as TV One removing Episodes from the air midway through the series.

Last September, TUANZ’s CEO Paul Brislen participated in an online chat about the file sharing law on the New Zealand Herald website. His replies diagnosed the problem nicely:

“There’s a wealth of good quality TV coming out of the US (and other places) that’s better than ever before and unfortunately it’s simply not made available in New Zealand in a timely fashion.

“Can you imagine if it was the rugby – the All Blacks playing Australia. It’s live in Australia, in the UK, South Africa and around the world but in New Zealand the TV network said “we’re going to screen that game at a later date, when we’re good and ready”… There would be a riot.”

If there is any one quote that should stick in your mind, it’s this:

“The problem isn’t that I want it for free – the problem is I want it now, but the rights holders’ business model doesn’t allow that.” [emphasis added]

Not much to ask for, surely?

We emailed Paul recently to see how he was feeling about things 14 months on. It’s safe to say his attitude remains unchanged.

“It’s not rocket science, is it? Customers want something in a timely fashion – they’ll get it without your help so why not give them that help… seems straightforward to me.”

So has anything improved over the last twelve months?

“I’m pleased to say since that interview the TV channels are getting a bit more clued up,” says Paul.

“We’ve got TV3 screening Homeland only hours after it airs in the US and FOUR has half a dozen shows that are shown as quickly as possible. I’m told the ratings for those four shows have increased noticeably since they did this.”

Mediaworks’ punctuality is paying dividends, and rightly so. I dare not ring any Homeland fans on a Monday night for fear of a reprisal attack.

This complements Four’s ‘Fast Four’ initiative well. This sees a number of shows screening within a week (sometimes even the same day) of the States. So if you like dysfunctional cartoon families, high school kids who randomly burst into song, or quirky girls acting all quirky-like while everyone gushes over how quirky she is, you know where to go.

The one ‘pitfall’, if you can call it that, is we are at the mercy of the US television schedule, described in The Guardian as roughly “as incomprehensible to a newcomer as a Rubik’s Cube is to a squirrel with a migraine.”

Long story short, the American networks take breaks for a. big sporting events and b. to screen their shows when the ratings will be highest (the “sweeps’ period). When they’re on break, our broadcasters dip into the archives. So really we’re no better or worse off than the States, except we don’t get free-to-air baseball.

So what else can you do if you want to be a good law-abiding citizen but want to get your TV fix now?

At the moment, not much. Part two, coming next week, will go through a few of the alternatives, though most of these are things to keep yourself occupied while the networks catch up.

Some of you can probably guess what they are. Share your thoughts, without penalty, below or over on Facebook.

October’s property report election edition: the real estate market, Auckland and Christchurch, and home affordability

What do Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have in common with many New Zealanders? They’re all paying big bucks to score a house.

Here are the biggest pieces of real estate news from October, complete with topical (at least, until tomorrow) subheadings:

 

Property market: Fired up, ready to go

Realestate.co.nz’s October NZ Property Report represents the midpoint of the ‘spring surge’. This is not some Afghani military plan but rather the big influx of listings that always follows winter.

Do the figures ever reflect that: October had 12,688 new listings – up 14% on September and, more significantly, 12% over last October. The sharpest increases were in Taranaki (up 68% on last October) and Hawkes Bay (+34.1%).

So more supply should mean lower prices, right? Not so much. The national mean asking price reached $445,529, up four percent on September and five percent on a year ago. That’s the highest price since realestate started collecting this data in 2007.

On the inventory front the market is heading back toward its long-term average of 39 weeks; right now it sits at 33 – nine percent over September. This is still 19% lower than last year but, with November being one of the biggest listing months, we can hope for a big bunch of new properties on the market soon – which would be good news indeed for buyers.

 

The big centres: Our blue and red states

Auckland and Canterbury are in a world of their own thanks to limited housing supply and plenty of demand.

Look no further than the asking price for proof. Last month Auckland passed the $600,000 mark for the first time and Canterbury broke the $400,000 barrier.

Listings are rising slower than the national average; Auckland and Canterbury went up by 5.6% and 8% respectively. Inventory levels sit at 19 weeks up north (12 weeks below the long term average) and 23 weeks down south – 10% down on this time last year.  Very much a sellers’ market then.

Now for some better news for buyers: building consents in September, says Statistics New Zealand, were up by 22% over the same time in 2011 and 45% over 2010.

Most new dwellings were approved where they are needed most: Canterbury – and mainly Christchurch city – with 174, followed by Auckland with 152.  While this number could always be higher, it is trending in the right direction.

Housing New Zealand has just released a plan which might help further still. Their plan for a medium-density apartment block on Manchester Street, to be one-third owned by HNZ, could be rolled out in other areas if successful. The plan, as reported in the NBR, is definitely worth a look.

A detailed analysis of the ‘battlefield states’

Housing affordability: Yes we can!

Meanwhile, last week the Government announced its response to the Productivity Commission’s home affordability investigation. Their proposal includes the following wishlist:

  • Fewer costs and delays – medium-sized housing consents are to be processed by councils within six months
  • More land supply – councils are to make more land available for housing both inside and outside city limits
  • More construction – government will investigate ways to increase productivity in the construction sector by 20% by 2020

Reaction has been lukewarm. TV3’s Duncan Garner calls the changes “underwhelming”, while Hugh Pavletich, who co-authors the excellent Demographia housing affordability survey, is most frustrated at the lack of concrete ideas. Our friend Alistair Helm, on his new and excellent Properazzi blog, has some thought-provoking ideas on this issue.

Government needs to be careful; to do anything that would cause a price crash, leaving mortgage-holders with their heads under water, is too reminiscent of 2008 to dare contemplate.

Many would like an economy that isn’t all about property – but that doesn’t mean killing real estate as an avenue altogether. After all, what are the alternative investment options? Finance companies?

The plan must be to increase supply to satisfy demand. If politicians try to assist home buyers without improving the supply side then nothing will change; prices will still rise as buyers uses the extra money to outbid each other.

In the meantime people are taking the situation into their own hands. Kiwisaver withdrawals for first home purchases quadrupled in the year to 31 March. And in a remarkable success story, this 22 year old Nelson landlord has just bought his second property.

And let’s not forget this point: low interest rates are bringing more and more first timers into the real estate market.

 

What all this activity shows is clearly the American New Zealand dream is still within reach. We’ll be watching to see if these home affordability measures will – in time – help even more kiwis step onto the property ladder.

Do you approve this message, or have you got a different philosophy? Cast your vote below or on our Facebook page!

Simon Sweetman on his new book, blogging and why vinyl is number one

As part of our ‘Be entertained’ series, I thought whom better to ask about the joy of vinyl (as explored in our previous post) than New Zealand’s most prolific music blogger Simon Sweetman.

Simon, who many of you will know from Blog on the Tracks, has also just become a first-time author. His new book On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics is on sale now.

Last week I flicked Simon some questions for the vinyl post and about his book. Exactly 24 minutes later I received so many great, insightful answers (to some mighty generic questions) I thought why not make an extra blog post out of it. Now I know how he manages to write at least five posts a week!

What is your new book about? What inspired you to write it?

I’ve written a book called On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics.

The big inspiration was the deadline! It was a commissioned book, I was asked to do it. But it’s something I really enjoyed, very much – as with any music writing – a labour of love.

The book tells the stories behind 30 of NZ’s best known/loved songs. But it’s very much a personal journey too and a personal selection.

There are some obvious chestnuts and some big surprises. It was hard to pick a list that reflected my tastes but would still, hopefully, mean something to anyone reading.

It’s a good book – I honestly feel I can say that. Because it became about so much more than just the music – it’s a cultural history, a social history of NZ. It looks at the politics of the time, our worldview reflected through various songwriters.

It was an amazing experience to be able to hear the stories firsthand and then to translate them, to add something of myself to them. I’m really proud of the book. Of course every NZ home should have a copy!

 

How did writing a book compare with the demands of writing a daily blog?

The book was very tough – I really experience writer’s block. Something I always thought was a convenient excuse or a myth. But I guess the idea that something was being committed to permanent record was daunting.

The blogs are there for people to look back to but it’s different – it’s very much a case, realistically, of refresh the next day, new topic. Maybe a few of the blog posts stick around because of the debate generated but most are forgotten quickly in much the same way that newspaper stories are.

So the book was a bigger effort in that sense. And I had to tighten up the way I wrote – a blog is very forgiving. You have regular readers that accept your style; it’s meant to be conversational.

I wanted the book to be conversational too but I guess more formal. I’m telling other people’s stories as much as I’m telling my own. With the blog it’s almost always my story.

I was stupid in that I wrote the blog every day while doing the book. I really should have cut down. But it’s done now and I am proud of the fact that I kept the blog going and I like to think that I kept the quality up – as best I could.

You’ll always have good days and bad and some topics you think will fly totally bomb. And often the throwaway ideas you’re a bit iffy about are the ones that take. It’s a guessing game – always. And I like that.

 

What turntable/AV setup do you use to listen to your records? Do you recommend any equipment or set up in particular?

I have a lovely Rega Planar 3 turntable, gifted to me – on long-term loan – from a very good friend. I think he was somewhat appalled at the very cheap and nasty all-in-one replica record player I was using.

That still sits in my study and I use it to play very old, scratched records. It works fine. But it’s not very good for the new LPs.

My stereo is nothing special – the turntable is nice. The stereo is a very old Denon amp/tape-player/CD player with JBL speakers. It’s from about 1991 I think. It goes well, still. And in a few years I’ll do an upgrade.

I’ve also got some Numark turntables – they will eventually be set up with a mixer for home DJing – and I have a couple of mini-systems around the house. A very dependable Sony 3-CD player in the office for CD reviewing. And a smaller Teac in the kitchen.

We’ve got a couple of iPod docking stations and I’ve set up some Logitech speakers to my computer since I now receive a lot of download codes and streaming albums for reviewing.

I’ve made this sound like I know what I’m talking about – but actually I had to go and check the brand-names of almost everything I’ve listed here. I would love to be a hi-fi snob but I lack the money required.

 

What, in your view, makes vinyl sound better than CDs and digital?

With vinyl you are hearing the warmth – it’s tactile too. You are hearing the music, rather than a bunch of code.

My main interest in vinyl is the experience – the idea of connecting with the music. It’s strange we now think that getting up to turnover an LP 20 minutes in is a pain in the ass. How easy have our lives become?

If the music just plays as background then you’re not really caring about it. Vinyl allows me to engage with the music – also I’ve enjoyed vinyl as an escape from reviewing.

I listen to a lot of CDs and MP3s for reviewing; it’s been nice to escape off into another room – to process music in a different way. Of course that backfired somewhat as I started a blog called The Vinyl Countdown where I document every album I listen to and the stories behind where I found the record and why I have it.

On Song Simon Sweetman

Are there any albums you would especially recommend listening to on a turntable rather than a CD or digital?

If I like an album – a new one, something I’ve reviewed or something I’m keen on hearing – I will generally seek it out on vinyl.

CDs just feel like work to me now – in that they’re a tool of my job. LPs are my actual collection now.

 

Your blog has been running for several years now – have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What advice would you give to fellow bloggers and aspiring writers?

There are nights when I take a lot longer to write something – and there are nights when I curse my own stupid rule of writing every weekday. But I don’t really suffer a block because I always find something to say.

It’s a big topic and there’s always something to write about. I enjoy going back to my collection for inspiration.

The block came with writing the book, as I said above. And that was really a case of how to approach it, I knew what to say – it was about finding the right way to say it. Like any first-time book writer my book has been a part of me, in some senses, for my whole life.

As for advice to fellow or potential bloggers – the key is to do it. Whatever it is that Woody Allen said about 80% of success is showing up. And the whole perspiration/inspiration idea.

Writing Blog On The Tracks every day makes me a writer. It gives me a deadline. And I have a platform, a forum. Now some days it even makes me a good writer. And other days it probably makes me a very bad writer – there’s a blessing and a cure behind writing so frequently.

But I had a lot of time off in my 20s. I dropped out and mucked around and talked a good fight. Now I’m very keen on showing up. On having something to say.

And I reckon that’s the best advice I can offer – if it is advice. It’s not curing cancer or changing the world in any way. But it’s helped me find out a lot about myself, and helped keep me happy.

And if it’s meant anything to anyone else in any way then I’m eternally grateful. I’m very lucky to have an audience, there are some very dedicated blog-readers along for the ride. And I thank them dearly.