Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for May 2007

Blogosphere erupts over terrorist dry run

I try to keep this blog light most of the time, but the Internet is not all pop culture and political banter. The political blogs have serious things on their mind this week, namely the story of Northwest Flight 327 — an incident described as “a terrorist dry run” by federal air marshalls.

Audrey Hudson had details in Sunday's Washington Times.

Annie Jacobsen broke the story on July 16, 2004, in a terrifying column for Women's Wall Street.

At the time, many people rushed to criticize Jacobsen, accusing her of hysterics and/or racism.

At the time I was inclined to believe her story, and to accept her conclusions about what the Syrian musicians were doing, but I always get nervous when the blogosphere ends up telling me what I want to hear.

Read blogs for a while and you will develop a kind of informational allergy, a knee-jerk reaction against certainty and glib conclusions. This skepticism can be as irrational as gullibility in its own way, but the blogosphere is a sea of pure opinion, built on a framework of dubious facts.

Shaky, incomplete news reports are spun into elaborate fantasies and churned into rabid convictions. Then, a few months later, new facts contradict the old ones and the theory you've been defending for six months turns out to be false.

I read a lot of right-wing blogs and have to force myself to visit the other side. But I do visit the other side, because too many of my “gut reactions” have turned out to be wrong. That's the real lesson of Internet discourse — the real lesson I hope to share in this blog.

So, today I'm looking at a story that seems to vindicate right-wing paranoia about terrorism. The conclusions look clear, simple and obvious. Now it's time to go looking for a second opinion. The most “respectable” left wing blog I know of is Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo.

Josh and his cohorts are generally reasonable and mild in their presentation — clearly Democratic partisans without being shrill or stupid about it.

I didn't see any obvious discussion of it there, so I poked around for a while and found this from Andrew Lazarus at Daily Kos.

I love this example because the folks at Daily Kos are as casually dismissive of Jacobsen's story as the Powerline guys were accepting of it.

That's the essence of Internet discourse right there, and the key to making political judgments in the digital age. Two diametrically-opposed camps, both with convincing arguments and a fairly equal number of believers on both sides.

You can pick your ideology and lean toward one side or the other, or you can try to take the middle ground and give yourself hours of tedious homework.

You can accept the glib conclusions of bloggers you trust, or you can do things the hard way, and read the real report.

UPDATE: The crux of the issue seems to be the phrase “dry run.” I can't find air marshals using that phrase in the report itself, and no specific person is named in the Washington Times quote. I found video of Annie Jacobsen talking about “the guys on the ground” — air marshals that she has talked to personally calling this a “dry run.”

I guess your attitude toward that quote will depend a lot on your attitude toward Annie Jacobsen. TSA spokesperson Ellen Howe dismisses the phrase “dry run” and does her best to downplay the incident.

I still don't understand the behavior of the Syrian musicians. Were they being deliberately provocative so they could test the boundaries of their civil rights? Were they playing a joke to shake up the Americans? Even if you accept that these people were not terrorists, you have to ask yourself why they would be willing to look like terrorists, in a situation where they knew it would be provocative.

Maybe these guys really are just band members working for “the Syrian Wayne Newton”, and this was somebody's idea of a joke.

Perhaps we should talk less about terrorist dry runs and talk a bit more about Syrians traveling on expired visas?

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 30, 2007 at 10:35

Posted in Politics

Duff: Salacious e-mail propositions could lead to imploding marriages

Last week I got a letter from a woman who wanted to know if her husband was cheating on her. The husband had received an e-mail from a “nice pretty girl” offering to send him some pictures.

This was a typical junk e-mail, colloquially known as spam. I could give you a long explanation of the term, involving meat products and Monty Python skits, but all you really need to know is that spam is a slang term for unsolicited commercial e-mail and that people who send it are called spammers. Spamming used to be a mom and pop business, but these days most of it comes from quasi-criminal organizations in Asia and Eastern Europe.

So here’s the moral question: If a Russian spammer pretending to be a young girl offers to send you pictures, and you write her back, is that the same as cheating on your wife?

There’s no real girl on the other end of that line, no real-life mistress in chat or on the telephone. Maybe the husband knew that and was just looking for free pornography, or maybe he fell for the scam and thought he was flirting with a real girl.

But if there’s no one on the other end of the line, does it still count as cheating? Is fishing for pornography online as serious as digital infidelity?

I can’t offer much help to the concerned wife, but I do have some advice for potential cheating husbands. In all my years of hanging around chat rooms, e-mail lists and online forums I have learned one important thing: Unless you have a computer science degree, you’re probably not smart enough to cheat on your wife.

Every word you type, every mail you send, every Web site you visit is recorded in your computer to some degree, and those actions leave traces, even if you think you’re being careful. Some guys try to be clever. They set up anonymous e-mail accounts and clear out their cache files; they use fake names and set up secret lines of credit.

But even if you’re careful in the beginning, can you be careful every day? Which is more suspicious, a browser history with a couple racy Web sites in it, or a browser history with no information at all?

So here’s my final word to cheating husbands: Real girls don’t offer naked pictures to total strangers, and nobody learns computer sleuthing faster than a jilted wife.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 25, 2007 at 15:22

Posted in Columns

Internet reaction to the death of Jerry Falwell

When I heard the news that Princess Diana died, I had just pulled a pizza out of the oven and dropped it face down on my kitchen floor. I think it's the pizza event, more than any affection for the royal family that makes the occasion stick in my mind.

But that was the first time I really observed the phenomenon of death on the Internet. That is, how the Internet reacts to the death of famous people. Today the Internet is mourning Jerry Falwell, in a distinctly irreverent way. The Internet demographic is younger, hipper, and generally more liberal than mainstream America.

That is acutely obvious today, as my inbox explodes with profanity, blasphemy and a variety of offensive cartoons. I've always felt that there were two Lubbocks. First there is Sunshine Lubbock, full of parks and churches and well-groomed parents pushing their children in strollers. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, set against a West Texas sunset.

Then there is the Other Lubbock, full of liberals, malcontents and college kids. The residents of Sunshine Lubbock put on suits and convene at the Chamber of Commerce. Other Lubbock hangs out at Denny's, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee until the sun comes up.

Other Lubbock spends a lot of time complaining about Sunshine Lubbock, but Sunshine Lubbock likes to pretend that their counterparts do not exist. Maybe they don't exist, in numbers large enough to worry about. They don't vote, they don't march, and they don't write letters to the editor.

That makes them invisible, for the most part, except to people like me. I grew up in the Other Lubbock, and I still have plenty of friends there. My Internet circle includes a dozen brilliant foul-mouthed college kids. Great writers, smart as hell, and as militant about their liberalism as Falwell was about the Christian right.

Today those kids are celebrating the death of Jerry Falwell the way the Bush administration celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein. I can't quote most of what I read today, but I'll tell you there's more to this than a bunch of college students rebelling against their parents. And it's not the typical Internet tactic of being rude for the fun of it.

Jerry Falwell was the sworn enemy of gays, feminists and the secular left. He blamed homosexuals for 9/11 and said AIDS was God's justice. And a hidden minority of Lubbockites are quite upset about that. You may think mainstream Lubbockites have the moral high ground here, but I wonder how Sunshine Lubbock will react to the death of Bill Clinton, when the time comes.

Hopefully they will be as graceful as Larry Flynt was today. Falwell sued Flynt in 1988. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And yet, on the day of Falwell's death, Flynt said:

“My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. … I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.”

I hope my enemies will be as gracious when I die.

I'm tempted to blame this on Internet rudeness and the deterioration of public discourse, but I think there's something else going on. It's as if once a person reaches a certain level of fame and fortune, anything you want to say about them is fair game.

It's one thing to celebrate the death of a political figure like Jerry Falwell, but I saw people cracking jokes about Steve Irwin, literally minutes after his death was announced. There were plenty of reasons to ridicule Anna Nicole Smith, but I always felt she deserved pity more than anything else.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I think there's an issue here that's more important than the legacy of any particular individual. We don't respect the dead because we approve of them. We respect the dead because we respect life itself. I'm so stodgy about this point, I even kept my mouth shut on the day they executed Saddam Hussein.

Most of the Internet does not share my view. And yet, for all the abuse they heap on public figures, people on the Internet generally respect the deaths of “real” people. The Internet is full of touching memorials set up for normal people: the online discussion group that loses a beloved regular, the World of Warcraft guild that loses a member, the podcast coalition that forms a charity drive around the memorial of a lost friend.

Internet denizens are capable of grace and tact when it comes to normal people, but it's as if once you hit a certain level of fame, you're not really a person anymore. That's the trend that bothers me, more than general rudeness or the denigration of political opponents.

I'm not here to praise or abuse Jerry Falwell, but I think everyone deserves a little respect on the day they die. There will come a day when it's appropriate to debate his politics and dissect his faults, but it's not today. I think respect for the dead should be a universal thing, no matter which Lubbock you live in.

UPDATE: Quick aside here, after talking to some editors. They're not sure if the letters they get match up with the demographic I'm talking about, but they think Lubbock's other side does write letters to the editor, and that they do vote. I would expect to see letters from academics at Tech or from left-leaning professionals in the community, but I don't think the college crowd spends much time interacting with the Avalanche-Journal.

I would like to see that change. So, if you're one of my friends who spends most of his time pouring out opinions on their blog, I would encourage you to take a moment and send a slightly cleaned-up version of your opinion to the A-J.

You can submit letters online by clicking here. Give old media a chance. It might surprise you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 16, 2007 at 11:44

Posted in Religion

NBC rolls out the big guns

NBC is going supernatural next season, capitalizing on the success of “Heroes”, its only bonafide hit.

Their comedy lineup is struggling, leading to the demise of the smartest show on the network, and my erstwhile favorite, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip“.

“Studio 60” has had a long, tortured ride this year, dodging cancellation half a dozen times before it finally got the axe. Created by West Wing guru Aaron Sorkin, “Studio 60” was despised by everyone who should have liked it. The same left-leaning alpha consumers who loved the “West Wing” turned on Studio 60 with a vengence.

I don't know why the cool kids turned on Sorkin. “Studio 60” was still smart, still funny, and still insufferably left wing, but Sorkin's audience wanted to see elaborate power fantasies about Democrats in the White House. Democrats already run Hollywood, so there's no fantasy here — no fighter jets dispatched from the war room, no heroic speeches about socialized medicine, and no sniggering Republican enemy to sink your teeth into.

The West Wing was a soothing counterpoint to the Bush administration. Sorkin killed their favorite show and substituted a lesser one. It was like watching your dad bring home a new girlfriend.

So what comedy has survived the Spring Purge? NBC has chosen to preserve “30 Rock“, a desperately unfunny show that makes banter look like weight lifting. Alec Baldwin is the only watchable actor on the program, and half his lines are devoted to the promotion of GE products.

So what has NBC got ready for the new season? What will save us from an endless sea of procedural cop shows?

We can look forward to a “Heroes” spinoff — a new Hero every week, followed by an American Idol vote-off at the end. Forget super powers, I plan to vote for the one with the best hair.

NBC is remaking the “Bionic Woman”. Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner were like a second family to me in the 70s, so I will cautiously withhold judgment on this one.

Then we have “Journeyman,” a story about a San Franciso newspaper reporter who travels through time to alter people's lives. Somebody's been reading my Livejournal! Or maybe they're just ripping off CBS. The truth is, all newspaper employees can travel in time. Why just last week, I saved the life of Larry the Cable Guy and built a campfire in the middle of some dinosaur footprints. Keep it under your hat.

Next on the lineup is “Chuck”, a thriller about a computer geek who becomes a government agent after…zzzzz…oh sorry, I nodded off there for a minute. Please, no more shows about heroic computer geeks. I've been a geek my whole life — I don't need to watch thinly-veiled parodies of myself having wacky adventures.

Candace Bushnell is making a show that sounds like “Sex in the City Lite”, this time with Brooke Shields in the lead. Better get used to it, guys. This is the show your wife will be making you watch next season.

And then we have a new sitcom, “The IT Crowd” about a group of people who work in technical services at a large corporation. This could be really funny, or it could be terribly trite and embarrassing. Geek as outcast, geek as superhero. I think I prefer “Geek as maniacal supervillain” but nobody listens to me.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 14, 2007 at 11:00

Posted in TV

Duff: Cool stuff on You Tube makes political warfare fun for us all

As the 2004 race was fought in the blogosphere, the 2008 race will be fought on You Tube.

The interesting thing here is not what’s being said in the campaign, but how the battle is taking place. The battle for 2008 is being fought with a series of provocative video clips – a volley of streamlined sound bites, laser-targeted and out of context, often distributed by the candidates themselves.

John McCain is feuding with the Club for Growth, Obama fans are tearing down Hillary with brilliant homebrew videos, and the worst dirt anyone has on Obama is a picture of him with a cigarette in his mouth.

The best video so far seems to be an amateur production: a spoof of the famous 1984 Macintosh ad depicting Hillary Clinton as the tired old order, smashed by her young, vigorous rival. Obama’s campaign has vigorously denied creating the ad, and I’m inclined to believe them. The major candidates are so risk-averse these days, I doubt anything this cool could make it past their lawyers.

Camille Paglia compares the candidates to racetrack thoroughbreds “rearing and shying as their handlers try to shove them into the gates.”
Michael Duff

With so much energy devoted to infighting, the actual Republican vs. Democrat sparring is starting to suffer. Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo has been reduced to comparing divorce rates among Republican and Democratic candidates. The verdict? “The entire field of Dems deemed credible boasts fewer divorces than Rudy Giuliani alone!”

The fun part is watching the usual suspects play against type. It’s still early enough that partisans are willing to praise their opponents and criticize their own frontrunners. In a year or so the major parties will form ranks behind their candidates, but we still have a few months of in-party warfare left. I say enjoy it while it lasts. We’ll get down to business soon enough.

On the Net:







Written by Michael B. Duff

May 11, 2007 at 15:23

Posted in Columns, Politics, TV

Duff: Get personal, get interactive and get connected – in other words, blog

MICHAEL DUFF, interim online editor for The Avalanche-Journal, is sharing the Internet buzz in this new weekly column.

The word is everywhere: blogs, blogging, bloggers. Sometimes it’s a noun; sometimes it’s a verb. Some people even use it as an adjective. Everybody wants one, everybody talks about them, but even dedicated bloggers don’t really know what they are.

Blogs are hard to define because they can be so many things to so many people. The first blogs were electronic diaries – personal journals published on the Web. Quirky, emotional and intimate, these early blogs started a phenomenon that is changing the culture of media. These journals don’t really fit the modern definition of blogging, but they’re definitely worth a look. They even had their own awards (www.diarist.net).

The pioneer of blogging is a man named Jorn Barger. Jorn started a blog called Robot Wisdom (www.robotwisdom.com) in 1997, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia. While the diarists were handing out long paragraphs of personal prose, Jorn was going the other way. Robot Wisdom is so sparse, it doesn’t even use complete sentences. Jorn’s style never really went mainstream, but no discussion about blogs would be complete without mentioning him.

The next blogging wave was news blogs. While the online diaries are about personal lives, news blogs are about the world. Written in an intimate first-person voice, news blogs are like columns in a newspaper – short, pithy and opinionated. News blogs today dominate the Internet, and every news organization on the planet, it seems, is trying to jump on the bandwagon.

Because of their subjective, personal nature, you can see why the word “blog” is hard to define.

Modern blogs, however, have three defining characteristics:

1. Blogs are personal. Blogs are written in first person, in a chatty, informal style that invites a personal connection with readers.

2. Blogs are interactive. Modern blogs allow comments, right below the entry itself. Some newspapers are trying to pass off their columns as blogs, but that doesn’t really fit. Blogs are a conversation. If you can’t talk back, it’s not a blog.

3. Blogs link to each other. Blogs are an Internet medium and the Internet is about person-to-people connections. Blogs are meant to be part of a global conversation.

If you’re not linking, you might as well be talking to yourself.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 4, 2007 at 15:24

Posted in Columns

Pros and Cons of the 2007 presidential candidates

My editor's been trying to squeeze a blog out of me all week and all I've got is this joke from McSweeney's.



Pro: Size; power; ability to emit short-range optic blasts.

Con: Potential attack ad: “Sometimes Optimus Prime is a robot, other times a truck. Which is it, Mr. Prime? America deserves a leader that doesn't transform whenever it's convenient.”

Don't like that one?

How about:

#14. AL GORE

Pro: Knows how to get to the White House, where to park, location of restrooms.

Con: Wants to accomplish something meaningful.

And in the interests of equal time:



Pro: I tell you what, he would bring the nations of the world together through ROCK! He'd be all deedly-deedly-deedly-DEE-DEE-DEE! on his guitar and the bosses of the other countries would be all, “Whoa! Let's stop fighting and start rocking!”

Con: Drunken wretched mess.

The essence of blogging here. Not feeling funny? Link to someone who is. Hats off to John Moe for helping me endure my afternoon.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 2, 2007 at 16:39

Posted in Politics