Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Michael Duff says goodbye

Wrote a final column for the A-J, but it looks like they’re not gonna run it. Here it is anyway:

This will be my last column for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

In June 2008, I tried to brand this as an “Internet culture” column and explain how this space would be different from the cacophony of technology columns that were here before me.

The media was already full of people doing industry profiles and product reviews. I wanted to focus on the big picture, to take a moment each week and appreciate things that were threatening to pass us by.

New products are changing the way we communicate and the way we treat each other, but it’s all happening so fast, nobody has time to think about it. We’re so busy using these new toys, we haven’t stopped to consider the benefits of instant communication or the dangers of overexposure.

The A-J gave me the opportunity to do that, week after week, in a format that gave me tremendous freedom. It helped me prove myself as a writer and create a voice that I’ll be using for the rest of my professional life.

I have to take a moment and thank Terry Greenberg for launching a series of new feature columns in 2007. I have to thank Shelly Gonzales for helping me navigate the treacherous legal and ethical waters of modern journalism. And I have to thank Bill Kerns for pleading my case and treating me like a human being when I walked up to his desk with a manuscript in my hand.

I want to thank Beth Pratt and Karen Brehm for their consistent encouragement and feedback, and most of all I have to thank the copy editors who learned when to save me from myself and when to leave me alone. Special thanks to Leanda, and Glenys, and Leesha, and James for fixing my unquoted movie titles and removing a thousand Oxford commas.

The Avalanche-Journal has been very good to me. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities I had and the friends I made here.

I didn’t slaughter as many sacred cows as I wanted to, but I was always able to poke them with sticks. I was trying to think back to my “proudest moment” in these pages but all I can remember is the fun stuff.

I remember abusing senior citizens in Grand Theft Auto and requesting help from Batman when my phone got stolen. I remember taking shots at Nick Denton and interviewing a Peggy Olson impersonator on Twitter.

I once described my job as “explaining the Internet to people who hate the Internet,” but I hope that description isn’t as true as it used to be. I hope the technophobes in the audience were able to read this column every week and come away with a bit more respect for technology and the people who use it.

I hope you read this column and decided to be nicer to people on blogs and forums. I hope you read this column and felt a little bit smarter each week, even when I was writing about things you never heard of before.

I hope you gained a bit more respect for video games and video gamers. I hope you learned to be a bit more careful with what you shared on Facebook, and I hope you learned to forgive people who shared too much.

I hope the people conducting job interviews learned to forgive candidates who left inappropriate stuff on their public profiles, and I hope a few grandparents learned to use Facebook to get closer to their kids.

I can’t say where I’m headed next, but keep your eyes on www.michaelduff.net and feel free to follow me on Facebook or Google Plus.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought, to sum up what I’ve been trying to say for the past four years.

The Internet is the real world. The people are real, the commenters are real, the emotions are real, and the consequences are real.

Every comment, every blog post, and every video game avatar represents a real person, with their own set of quirks and vulnerabilities. We’re getting better at this whole “online communication” thing but we all have blind spots, and not everyone can express themselves well in this medium.

When in doubt, be nice. Don’t assume the worst about people, and don’t rise to the bait when people try to provoke you. Something about the Internet can make rational adults behave like spoiled children. Don’t let them get to you, and don’t let them drive you away.

The Internet is the future, and the future belongs to everyone.

Thank you for your attention and your feedback. I may not be in print anymore, but I’ll be around.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 2, 2011 at 04:32

Posted in Best Of, Columns

Hurricane Irene and the Broken Window Fallacy

Here it comes again, The Broken Window Fallacy.

I heard it just this morning, as a reporter for Fox News talked about the “economic stimulus” that would result from this hurricane. Paul Krugman has been beating this drum quite a bit lately, saying that America needs a disaster, a war, or even an alien invasion to “get the economy moving again.”

But destruction can’t create growth. Anyone who tells you otherwise has fallen for — or is trying to pull — the oldest trick in the book.

Let’s say I’m a shopkeeper who just had his window shattered by a little girl who was playing with a BB gun. Let’s call her “Irene.”

Irene shatters my window, so I have to pay the glass guy $250 to get it fixed.

Krugman and company will tell you that $250 becomes “stimulus,” but where did that $250 actually come from? I was planning to spend that money on a new suit, but now I have to fix my window instead.

The Keynesians are assuming that if Irene didn’t break my window, my $250 would just sit there forever, stuffed in my mattress for a rainy day. But I had plans for that $250. I wasn’t going to hoard it, I was going to spend it. If Irene hadn’t taken out my window, that money would have “stimulated” the clothing store instead.

Keynesians like to pretend that we’re all a bunch of crazy hoarders, rolling around in piles of unspent cash like Scrooge McDuck. But in a modern world, even saved money becomes part of the active economy. I don’t stuff my money in a mattress, I keep it in a bank, where it becomes capital for other people. My saved money is lent out to other businesses and used to finance productive investments.

Nothing is idle, nothing is wasted. When my window gets broken I have to withdraw $250 in saved capital and use it to replace something I already had. I can’t spend it on a suit, and the bank can’t loan it to their client who wants to open a restaurant. For the Broken Window theory to be true, you’d have to assume that I was holding $250 in cash and had no plans to spend it.

Just think about your own life. If someone broke your window tomorrow, would the repair cost come out of hoarded cash, or would you have to give up something else you wanted to buy?

We should feel bad for the people who lost property to Hurricane Irene because all the “stimulus” they’re about to spend on repairs was money they would have spent on clothes and cars and toys for their kids. Now all those plans are ruined, and they have to spend thousands of dollars just to replace things they already had.

This will certainly stimulate the construction industry, but what about the tailors and the auto makers and the toy stores who would have received that money instead?

Nothing good can come from destruction. Emergency spending doesn’t create wealth, it simply diverts resources that would have been spent on other things.

Hurricane Irene is a net loss for everybody, and it’s going to be a big one.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 28, 2011 at 15:27

Posted in Best Of, Politics

Hidden subtext…

The market is so bad today, I think Glenn Reynolds just told me to buy a helmet.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 8, 2011 at 10:23

Posted in Uncategorized

Jeff Jarvis starts a Twitter revolution with #fuckyouwashington

The first thing that went through my mind when I heard about Jeff Jarvis starting a revolution on Twitter tonight was “How the hell can I write a column about a #fuckyouwashington hashtag without using the word ‘fuck?'”

Then I saw somebody compare it to Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” speech in Network. Have you watched that clip lately? The parallel is perfect. Howard doesn’t know what to do about crime, oil, or Russians, he’s just demanding that we do something.

The same thing is happening on Twitter right now. Nobody knows what to do about unemployment, corporatism, or the debt ceiling, they just want everybody to get mad about it right now!

Watch the tag for a while and you’ll notice that half of these tweets contradict the other half. Half the protesters think we should solve this by going hard right, the other half think we should solve it by going hard left.

But Washington is gridlocked because America is gridlocked. The outrage on Twitter is random and unfocused because there are actually three different kinds of anger at work here.

First, we have left and right anger, the friction you would expect when you have 30% pulling right, 30% pulling left and 40% stuck in the undecided middle.

But there is another kind of anger layered on top of that. The right wing guys aren’t really behaving like right wing guys and the left wing guys aren’t really behaving like left wing guys.

Republicans who were sent to Congress to cut spending and fight corruption are proposing half-measures and rolling over for the very people they were sent there to oppose. And this anger started long before the 2010 congress. Obama didn’t start the bank bailouts, Bush did. The incredible ramp in deficit spending started with Bush, too.

Obama ran as a hard left populist champion, promising to rise above corporate influence and bring the troops home. Now he’s starting new wars and raking in banker cash with both hands.

So there’s our third heat. The right can’t make things go right and the left can’t make things go left. Increasingly, Washington is working from a set of priorities that have no connection to the will of the people.

If the country was going consistently right or left, at least 30% of the voters would be happy. But we’re in the middle of a serious recession and our politicians seem to be broadcasting from another planet.

Every day they go on TV to stoke the fear, scaring us with words like “crisis” and “default,” each demanding that we blame the other side.

That part is working. Americans are angry and afraid. You told us there was a crisis and we believe you. But we’re not blaming “the other side” — we’re blaming everybody.

Thirty percent of voters will blame the left for anything that goes wrong and 30% will blame the right, but 40% in the middle are ready to blame both of you.

Playing political games with loaded issues is nothing new, but this time everybody knows it’s a game. Voters aren’t stupid. They’re watching cable and reading blogs. They’re listening to talk radio and swapping conspiracy theories on Facebook.

Everybody knows you guys are running the clock out, waiting for the next election. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t go on TV to scare the shit out of us every day and then expect us to wait patiently for 2012.

You can’t use words like “urgent” and “crisis” and then waste our time with Kabuki theater.

Either the situation is urgent and needs to be solved now, or it’s all just an act that can wait for 2012. This isn’t 1954, gentlemen. The voters are on to you now. We know you’re playing a game and we know you’re using us as chess pieces.

That’s why #fuckyouwashington is trending on Twitter. We’re tired of being pawns.

Every politician in Washington needs to pay attention to this outrage and remember who they’re working for.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 24, 2011 at 03:57

Posted in Best Of, Politics, Twitter

Richard Dawkins tells feminist blogger to ‘grow up and grow a thicker skin’

This is a story about three people who abused their power, but I think all three of them did it by accident.

It starts with a blogger named Rebecca Watson who writes about science, religion and atheism on a blog called “Skepchick.”

Rebecca was in Ireland for an atheist conference. She was chatting with strangers at the hotel bar until 4 a.m. and decided she’d had enough. A man she had been talking to followed her into the elevator and invited her back to his room for coffee.

Here’s the description of the incident that Rebecca posted on YouTube:

“So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’

“Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4 a.m., in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”

Special thanks to David Futrelle for transcribing her words, and for writing the first post I saw about this.

Rebecca posted the video of her (relatively mild) comments, and the Internet exploded. I don’t think she was trying to fire the first shot in a new Battle of the Sexes but she’s certainly in the middle of it now.

Feminist blogs erupted with admonitions for men to “check their privilege” and Rebecca’s comment section was overwhelmed by a misogynist backlash.

So how did an awkward moment between two people get blown so out of proportion? Turns out one of the commenters was famed atheist and science author Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins’ reply was so provocative I’m not comfortable quoting it here. He basically compared Rebecca’s small complaint to the plight of women suffering genuine abuse in Muslim countries, telling her to “For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”

The man in the elevator didn’t understand the inherent power that men have over women. He misread Rebecca’s signals and didn’t understand the delicate nature of the situation. The fact is, once a woman is uncomfortable, it doesn’t really matter why.

Maybe something in his speech or body language felt wrong. Awkwardness that might have been overlooked at 4 p.m. is hugely magnified at 4 a.m., and if the poor guy didn’t know it then, you can bet he knows it now.

But Rebecca has power, too. A female blogger writing in a male-dominated field has tremendous power over her audience. Awkward young men get very excited when they find a woman who thinks like they do, particularly when the women go out of their way to seem attractive and approachable.

These men have exaggerated reactions to videos and photographs because they haven’t really learned the difference between reality and marketing. The girl in the picture isn’t posing for “you,” she’s posing for the camera. And no matter how insightful her posts are, she’s not writing blogs about “you,” either. She’s writing for her audience — for an anonymous, romanticized vision of an audience that may not even exist.

The Internet has created a world where geek girls can be treated like movie stars, but that attention cuts both ways. A blogger who knows how to sell herself can attract an extraordinary amount of male attention, but men who can’t tell the difference between reality and marketing can easily see indifference as rejection and take it personally.

Female bloggers inspire extraordinary levels of love and hate in the men who follow them. That leaves them open to abuse, but it also gives them a special kind of power. With a twitch of her finger that audience can be mobilized and used as a weapon.

Elevator Guy hasn’t been revealed yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The avalanche hasn’t landed yet, but it’s hanging right over his head. Awkward moments come and go, but Google is forever. If he’s lucky his name will never go public, and he’ll just have to spend the next six months worrying about it.

A man might have more power in an elevator, but a female blogger on YouTube is a hurricane in a bottle. She can destroy a man’s whole life in two seconds.

The third actor in this little drama is Richard Dawkins, and he’s the one who really should have known better. Dawkins is a recognized leader in the atheist community, an international celebrity whose every word is praised by fans and twisted by enemies.

He probably thought he was just firing off a silly comment, but he’s not some random commenter. His celebrity imbues his words with tremendous power, and he attacked Rebecca Watson like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the mountaintop.

Men need to watch what they say in strange elevators, but female bloggers need to watch their language, too. They need to watch how they market themselves and be mindful of their own power, as they decide what to share on YouTube.

Finally, Richard Dawkins needs to remember that he’s not just a private citizen anymore. He’s a public figure, wielding tremendous influence and moral authority in this community.

“Check your privilege” is good advice for everybody, no matter what kind of elevator you’re in.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 12, 2011 at 05:50

Posted in Religion

Google joins battle for soul of the Internet with Google Plus

Google launched a limited beta of their new social networking service last week, and was quickly overwhelmed with traffic as eager alpha geeks rushed to find something, anything that would liberate them from Facebook.

Love it or hate it, Facebook has now become the Internet. It’s the most popular site in the world, a one-stop shop for personal messaging, public discussion, political activism and link swapping worldwide.

Google’s new service is called Google Plus, and if you followed Google’s previous attempts at social networking, I won’t blame you for being skeptical. Google Buzz was a disaster and Google Wave broke my heart. Google Plus is starting with a better design philosophy than Facebook did, but even if they do everything right, it’s going to be an uphill battle all the way.

The Internet is basically entering its third evolution now, as expectations become more complex and the last few stragglers make it part of their daily lives.

Phase One was just about finding stuff. In the early days, Yahoo could fit the whole Internet in a series of link lists. Early users jumped on the Internet to find news, trade tech articles, and fight with a self-selected group of early adopters on Usenet.

Phase Two was about sharing stuff. Google made search engines reliable and fast, so the Internet became more about connecting with people and sharing links with friends.

Google won the battle for Phase One and Facebook won the battle for Phase Two.

Now we come to Phase Three. We know how to search and we know how to share, but now we’ve got so much crap coming at us 24 hours a day, even moderate users are drowning in status updates. We’ve got so many “friends” interacting with us in so many different contexts, we can’t just lump them all into one stream anymore.

Phase Two was about making connections. Phase Three will be about managing them.

Google Plus is built around the concept of Circles. Every friend you add to the service must be added to a circle. Plus starts with a set of recommended categories: Friends, Family and Acquaintances. Most people will immediately add a circle for work, then they’ll make a circle for “Super Friends” – the eight or nine people in the world they can share everything with.

This is the function I’ve been waiting for, the function I’ve been screaming about in this column for the past two years.

Facebook is great but modern people don’t just have one face. I follow about 300 people on Facebook and each one of those people follows me for a different reason. Some of them like the columns, some of them like my political rants, some of them knew me in high school, and some of them have known me all my life.

But the people who like the columns don’t necessarily care about politics, and the people who knew me in high school don’t necessarily like what I write. I always feel a little guilty when I post to Facebook because I know any post that appeals to ten people is likely to annoy ten others.

With Google Plus I get to make the choice, and since everybody else is free to make their own categories, too, they can choose what box to put me in. This concept is so simple, I can’t believe Facebook has botched it so badly. Facebook has lists and sharing restrictions but they’re almost impossible to use.

Human interaction occurs in context, but Facebook’s one-stream-fits-all approach encourages people to ignore that context, leading to embarrassing, even disastrous consequences. The people who follow my column are nice, but they don’t need to see status updates when I go on vacation.

My friends love me, but they don’t all agree with my politics. A link that would be catnip for economics nerds might seem boring or even insulting to them. Forcing your political opinions on strangers isn’t just rude; it’s dangerous.

Interactions in the workplace occur in a very specific social context. It was bad enough when all we had to worry about was offending people, but now the things you share at work may be a violation of federal law. In this climate you’re not just protecting yourself when you segregate your social networks, you’re protecting your boss and your co-workers from things they really don’t want to know.

Google and Facebook have just entered into a steel-cage death match for the soul of the Internet. Can Google Plus gain market share before Facebook copies their best feature? My instincts say no. I think it will be easier for Facebook to add Circles than it will be for Google to steal its users.

I think we’re up against the Grandma Factor. Facebook has become so ubiquitous, even Grandma is using it. Will parents and grandparents be willing to follow their kids to a new platform?

I’m guessing no, but maybe that’s a Plus for you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 1, 2011 at 02:56

Posted in Best Of, Facebook, Google

Greece, at the Keynesian Endpoint

Smart money says Greece will calm down in a week or so.

Europe and its respective banks will come up with some kind of delay tactic and push the day of reckoning back a month or two.

I can’t imagine what this compromise will be, but these guys have gotten so good at hiding consequences and shifting money around, only a fool would bet against them.

They can push it back for another month or another year, but eventually something will have to be done about Greek debt. The banks, the governments, the creditors, and the politicians involved will come up with some kind of solution and that solution will become the model for all the toppling dominoes that come after.

The reckoning will be slow but inevitable. The welfare states of Europe have finally reached the Keynesian Endpoint. These economies are so screwed up, so crippled by waste and malinvestment, the amount of stimulus required to sustain the bubble is greater than the amount these nations are able to borrow.

Libertarians have stumbled over this for decades because we always expect the collapse too soon. We see the fundamental contradictions in these economic models and say, “Well, that won’t last.”

Libertarians have been predicting the failure of the Euro since 1999. The model is fundamentally unsound, but they’ve held it together for a decade, and if they can figure out a way to kick the PIIGS out, they may hold on for a decade more.

Consider the Soviet Union. Mises knew the experiment was doomed in 1921, but it took 70 years for the contradictions to catch up with reality. In that time the Soviet Union used force, fear, nuclear brinksmanship and sheer weight of numbers to become a worldwide superpower. The flaws in the system were evident from day one, but they kept the plates spinning for a lifetime.

People wasted their whole lives waiting for this impossible system to break down, and when it finally did, no one was more surprised than the economists.

The modern welfare state isn’t quite as old as Communism, and mixed socialism isn’t nearly as fragile as the real thing. Our prices may be insane but we still have them.

This Greek thing may fizzle in a few days, or we may be facing a full-on Berlin Wall moment, as the contradictions inherent in the welfare state finally become too obvious to ignore.

Greece was the birthplace of democracy, and it may be the place where democracy starts to die. What happens when people take to the streets demanding the impossible? Ask any ten people on that street today and I’ll bet eight of them believe that things can go on just as they are, if the people just want it enough.

There’s no fundamental problem here, the politicians just aren’t listening to us. We don’t need tax hikes, we don’t need spending cuts, we just need to elect a group of politicians who will stand up and say, “No! Screw your austerity measures! We’re going to keep things just the way they are.”

France and Germany will throw up their hands and say, “We give up! The Greek people have spoken! Give them the credit card back.”

But that’s not going to happen. That’s what these rioters don’t understand. They still think this is a political problem. But we have stepped beyond the bounds of politics and entered the realm of finance. The Greek voters can vote any crazy shit they want on each other, but they can’t make France and Germany give them money.

They can’t force the bond market to pretend they have good credit when they don’t. All they can do is default, or leave the EU entirely. Sounds fun, but the moment they do that, Greece becomes a third world country again.

Imagine what the world must look like to these Greek politicians. For decades politics has been an awesome job. All you had to do was get elected and hand out money all day. All you had to do was sit at your desk and write checks from an infinite pool of money. Go home for brandy and a cigar and spend all night thinking up new ways to say “Yes!”

But then somebody pulled the credit card. Goldman Sachs is on the phone telling you you have to say No. Not only can you not hand out new money, you have to go back to your constituents and ask for most of it back!

You made promises based on somebody else’s credit, and that credit has just run out.

(I suspect politics will be a lot less fun now that the default answer has shifted from “Yes!” to “No!” And it’s going to be a lot harder to find people to run for office now that the job has changed. How will we know when politicians have finally accepted reality? Expect resignations, lots and lots of resignations.)

This is the real lesson we’re about to learn from Greece. Who really controls a democratic country — the people in the streets, or the guys who hold the credit card?

The citizens can riot, I suppose, but I’m afraid these protests are going to look a lot like Egypt. You can’t stage a revolution from the Middle Class. Send out the police, bust a few heads, spread some tear gas around, and these guys will go straight back to their homes. The people who protest for more welfare aren’t the kind of people who start revolutions.

They’ll kick out the old politicians, but the new ones won’t be any better. The new guys can promise whatever they want on the campaign trail, but they can’t make the money come back. Voters will elect people who say they can make the money come back, but none of them actually can.

Say it with me, “When it finally comes time to cut spending, it won’t matter who the president is.”

And that is life at the Keynesian Endpoint. What happens when voters demand the impossible? In the old days this would be simple. Germany and France would demand repayment of their debt and if the Greeks didn’t cough it up, the bigger countries would invade.

Good old-fashioned military conquest. How many of our wars have actually been large-scale debt collections? (Most of them? All of them? I’d look it up but I’m not sure I could sleep tonight.)

Military conquest isn’t really a “thing” anymore. I suspect we’ll end up with some European Union “supervisors” sent over to “help the Greek transition” to austerity. They’ll have bodyguards, of course. And politicians that oppose them, well, I’ll be very interested to see what happens to them.

This is all just a Greek thing, of course, an isolated scenario that has no bearing on Spain, Ireland, Italy, or Portugal.

And it certainly has no relevance for the United States. We don’t need any pushy foreign countries buying our debt. We invented a bank to do that for us. Nope, no austerity for us. We’ll just keep adding zeroes to the end of prices until our debt goes away.

We won’t even have to print new money. None of that tacky Zimbabwe shit for us. We do all this on computers now.

Imagine how efficient hyperinflation will be in the age of the Internet. We can change prices as fast as we want and machines will do the math.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 17, 2011 at 01:12

Posted in Politics

Rainn Wilson turns manboy avenger in “Super”

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in "Super"My generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world, forever trying to mix childhood power fantasies with adult realism.

GenX moviegoers are themselves a curious mix of light and dark. On one hand, we long to lose ourselves in fantasy, immersing ourselves in films like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings.” While on the other, we revel in darkness and depravity, struggling to redeem dark themes and anti-heroes with touches of absurdity and humor.

I’d say Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate GenX filmmaker. “Pulp Fiction” is a perfect mix of light and dark — adult sleaze delivered in a candy coating of pop culture and noir clichés.

Super” is another attempt to mix comic book idealism with real world angst. When Frank D’Arbo’s wife leaves him for a smooth-talking drug dealer, he decides to find a comic book solution to his real world problem.

Inspired by a TV hero named “The Holy Avenger” (played by an awkward, dreamlike Nathan Fillion) Frank decides to sew a costume and become “The Crimson Bolt.”

Anyone who tried this in real life would quickly become The Crimson Stain, but this isn’t a genre tribute like “Kick Ass.” This is a surreal fairy tale about loss and desperation, told through the eyes of an emotionally-shattered beta male.

The film is hard to love because it can never quite decide what kind of film it is. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

“Kick Ass” tried the same trick and succeeded only because it abandoned realism in the third act and went full comic book for the finale.

“Super” never goes full-on superhero, it’s just mildly improbable throughout. Frank suffers random beatings and gunshot wounds, only becoming bulletproof for the triumphant (and disturbing) finale.

The film has its own kind of integrity because Frank really is mentally ill. He spends the whole movie walking the line between heroism and sociopathy, proving that every Batman must have a little Joker in him as well.

This is particularly well done in the film’s finale, when Frank does “the right thing” in a very bad guy way. A tonal failure if you’re trying to appeal to a GenX audience, but wicked fun if you’re trying to provoke them.

“Super” is constantly pushing and pulling on our expectations, veering wildly between slapstick comedy and buzzkilling gore. Most superhero films pander to the audience. This one seems calculated to provoke them.

The most provocative element for me was how the film used Ellen Page. Libby starts out as a screenwriter’s fantasy, an emotionally-retarded geek girl who works in a comic book store. If they’d cast a plainer actress it might have worked, but Page is way too hot for the role.

This is a shame because her performance was amazing. Libby is exactly the kind of thrill-seeking comic book geek who would fall for Frank, but Page is so pretty her looks seemed to be fighting against her dialog.

Wilson hits a dozen strong emotional notes in the film, but his treatment of Libby was my favorite bit. He insisted on treating her like a kid sidekick, while the audience was seeing a young woman.

In this sense, Frank’s mental illness gives him a kind of purity. He’s not merely pretending or lying to himself. He’s so in love with his wife, so blinded by religious conviction, so committed to his own insane course of action, he can’t see Libby as an adult, even when she forces the issue.

“Super” gives us one of the hottest cosplay seduction scenes ever filmed and then ruins it, almost immediately, with a terrible scene of realistic violence.

The scenes are framed so you can’t remember one without the other, so your brain gets stuck in a quantum state, constantly switching back and forth between brutal realism and sexy costumed fun.

I think this is the real point of “Super.” The film isn’t trying to teach us or entertain us; it’s trying to confuse us, to screw with our expectations and intentionally dredge up conflicting emotions.

This isn’t a dark morality tale or a costumed romp. It’s a little bit of both, swirled in a bowl but never quite mixing together.

I can’t say I enjoyed “Super” but I’m going to remember it. I’ll remember the sharp cuts between fantasy and realism, and I’ll remember the angry, queasy feeling it left me with, as I tried to fit the story into a clean narrative box.

“Super” was funny, dark, violent and confusing. With any other film those shifts in tone would be a kind of failure, but with “Super” I think they were the whole point.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 5, 2011 at 02:27

Posted in Comics, Culture, Movies

A Tribute to James Royal Berry (1967-1999)

Royal Berry should have turned 44 yesterday, but we lost him at 31.

I can’t say we were close friends, but he left such an impression on me, I feel like there should be something on the Internet to mark his passing, something more than a formal obituary.

An obituary can’t capture the best things about Royal because Royal was a geek — one of the most brilliant, creative, hardworking examples of geekdom I have ever seen.

Royal was a whirling dervish of creative energy. He had that indefinable “thing” that turns men into entrepreneurs and captains of industry. He had the essential courage of a small businessman, the fierce desire to try new things and make money on his own terms.

In the late ’80s he made a BBS game called “The Pit” — one of the first BBS games to feature color graphics and PVP combat. In Lubbock I believe it was THE first, based on a highly addictive gladiatorial arena model. I did some writing for Royal, back in the day, and I frequently wish I could go back and do it better.

I was a bit in awe of Royal back then, but I didn’t really understand him, and I didn’t know enough about video games to really understand what he needed.

The world had just discovered “Doom” and “Castle Wolfenstein.” Royal was experimenting with 3-D graphics, grappling with concepts that were a decade away from mainstream popularity.

Royal was always a bit ahead of his time, and we lost him right before the world got interesting. I can only imagine what he would have done with iPads, smart phones and an app store full of mobile games.

Royal was also my first Game Master — the guy who took me through my first dungeon crawls and taught me the unique mix of discipline and storytelling that makes a good DM.

That’s what I remember most — the incredible wit and energy that Royal brought to gaming. He brought characters to life and ruled the table with an iron fist. As Dungeon Master he was wicked and merciless and terrifying. I liked to run soft, cooperative games that coddled players and fudged things in their favor.

Royal was my opposite — random, heartless and utterly unpredictable. He never cheated, he never fudged, and he was never blatantly cruel, but he was as impartial and uncaring as the big bad world itself.

He inspired genuine respect and genuine fear as we huddled around the table, knowing our characters could die at any moment, at the mercy of rules and dice.

I admired Royal as a programmer and an entrepreneur, but looking back, what I miss most is having him at the head of that table, performing for a crowd of happy gamers — juggling six different kinds of intrigue, intercepting secret notes, and unleashing plot twists that kept us all on the edge of our seats.

One of my favorite memories from high school was a roleplaying “duel” we fought to settle a bet between two groups of rival gamers. We built it up like the Superbowl and spent weeks trash talking each other beforehand.

We planned an epic battle between a dozen characters and “hired” Royal to adjudicate. This is my favorite memory of Royal because we really did treat him like a Judge. This was a fight between two camps of mortal enemies but there was one thing we could all agree on — we knew we could trust Royal Berry to handle it right.

We didn’t use the word “integrity” back then, but we knew even in this silly context that James R. Berry was a man of honor.

I wish I had known him better. If I’d been a little less intimated by him, we could have been better friends.

The world will remember James Berry as a programmer, an entrepreneur and an online gaming pioneer, but I miss Royal the trickster, Royal the storyteller, Royal the entertainer — cracking jokes and rolling dice with a twinkle in his eye.

Happy birthday, Royal. We miss you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 2, 2011 at 11:45

Posted in Best Of

Partial Objects takes on Chomsky

Somebody with the unfortunate handle of “Pastabagel” has written a delightfully snarky post about Foucault vs. Chomsky, where he identifies Chomsky’s core audience (socialist teens who think the United States is a kind of global father figure) and makes some accurate (and depressing) observations about political power.

The root problem with Chomsky is that he either doesn’t understand or is deliberating obscuring the difference between “force” and “coercion.” He doesn’t want to acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action. No choice is completely uncoerced. By Chomsky’s definition, hunger is a form of coercion. Scarcity is coercion. So the only way to achieve his perfect world would be to abolish scarcity.

Libertarians make a much more limited distinction between voluntary and involuntary action. You signed a contract because you’re hungry, but you signed the contract. Your employer is getting a bargain because you’re hungry, but he didn’t directly cause your hunger. All we can do is make sure you’re free to find another job once your belly’s full.

Conditions imposed by scarcity are not force. These conditions are imposed by nature, not man. We can’t dictate political terms to nature. We can’t abolish scarcity by popular vote. Politics only applies to the actions of human beings.

We can’t abolish hunger by popular vote — all we can do is make violence, fraud and theft illegal, and focus our attention on fighting scarcity.

Only crazy libertarians believe that, of course. The last 100 years of political thought, the entire foundation of our modern world is based on the idea that we can abolish scarcity by popular vote.

The Western world is so in love with this, so committed to the idea of voting away scarcity, they have borrowed trillions of dollars, destroyed decades of productive capacity, and created gigantic bureaucracies trying to turn lead into gold.

Even now, at the end, we’re committed to it. We’ve reached demographic critical mass, when the ratio of workers to consumers has become unsustainable. We’ve tried every trick in the book — shifting blame, unbalancing trade, and finally printing money, but the laws of nature remain the same.

We’re so determined to vote ourselves rich we’ve actually made it easier for human beings to enslave each other. We’ve created regulatory levers that concentrate power in the hands of bureaucrats who can be bought, sold, and traded like baseball cards.

Why bother competing in the marketplace when you can just fly on down to Washington and make your competition illegal?

We’re wasting trillions in productive capacity deciding how to carve a finite loaf of bread while fewer and fewer people are devoted to baking it.

But Pasta isn’t talking about money or scarcity, he’s talking about power — about the fundamental laws that create power and the prerogatives of those who wield it.

Chomsky is presented as the starry-eyed teenager who wants the world to be fair and Foucault is the cynical adult who wants to deal with the world as is.

The video clip below illustrates this fundamental conflict between “should” and “is.” Foucault is saying that even if Chomsky were to wave a magic wand and abolish “the system” tomorrow, the ostensibly neutral institutions of psychiatry and university education would rebuild it.

Foucault is referring to the educational system as an oblique source of power, but in my lifetime it’s become overt. The monolith of public education is obvious, but the university system is now about as “private” as the NHS.

Pasta is annoyed by all this talk of “should.” People with guns and money make the rules and people with guns and money are allowed to break them. Democracy was supposed to be our ultimate hedge against this tendency, but a funny thing happened on the way to the coliseum.

This is the crisis point we find ourselves at today. The utopians may have lost a few battles, but I think they won the war. Politicians who’ve spent a century telling us we can vote ourselves rich are now facing a population who believes them. Europe finally reached a point where even the most fervent true believers were forced to acknowledge the reality of scarcity.

They bit their lips and implemented “austerity” — 4% cuts in response to 40% deficits — and voters are rioting in the streets. Austerity parties in Spain, Germany, Greece, and the UK are all facing disaster at the polls. You told us we could take 8 weeks off and retire at 55 and that’s damn well what we’ll have. Scarcity is somebody else’s problem.

We’re about to face a crisis that democracy can’t solve. And I’m not just talking about Europe.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 24, 2011 at 18:19

Posted in Politics