Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for June 2007

Duff: With video game addiction, prevention has to begin in the home

Duff: With video game addiction, prevention has to begin in the home

Last week I tried to prove that video games could be good for you. This week I have to talk about the other side.

For every 100 kids playing video games, 15 of them could be addicted. This number comes from a report submitted to the American Medical Association. On Wednesday, the AMA decided that although overuse of video games can be a problem for children and adults, they’re not ready to call it a disease.

It’s the classic problem faced by ethicists in the modern age. Is it moral or medical? Is video game addiction caused by brain chemistry or weakness of character?


I’m not qualified to answer that question, but you don’t need a degree in neurochemistry to deal with the problem of addicted kids. Parents have to exert control over their kids’ computer use, and game manufacturers are willing to help.

World of Warcraft comes with parental controls that allow you to determine exactly when your child can play the game. If the last time you saw the Warcraft account screen was the first time you put your credit card in, please go to www.worldofwarcraft.com and look again. Look for “Parental Controls” on the right hand side of the main page under “Quick Links.” The parental control page is worth a visit, if only to see the cute cartoon.

Of course, no technological solution can substitute for an active, concerned parent, but establishing boundaries can make the battle easier, and help your WoW-crazed child get some sleep.

Wives may even want to try this trick on their husbands, but please don’t blame me for the results. As a recovering WoW addict myself, I’ve often wished for an external authority that would shut the game off and make me go to sleep. Unfortunately, being an adult means having the power to sabotage yourself, and having no one else to blame when things go wrong.

It’s easy to blame manufacturers when kids get wrapped up in these things, but I think game addiction is more a symptom than a cause. The real problem is the army of latchkey kids, stuck with computers as their baby sitters and primary source of social interaction.

Real life is harder than virtual life, but it’s also more rewarding. Show your kids the richness of real life, and the games won’t seem so tempting anymore.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 29, 2007 at 14:58

Posted in Columns, Games, Warcraft

Duff: The wages of Warcraft are linked to the guild one joins – choose wisely

World of Warcraft is more than just a game. With a worldwide customer base of 8.5 million people, Blizzard’s award-winning computer odyssey has become a legitimate cultural phenomenon. World of Warcraft, commonly known as WoW, is devouring free time all over the world, leaving a trail of strained marriages and sleepy employees in its wake.

World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Role-playing Game, an MMORPG for short. Players use Internet connections to run quests, fight monsters and trade goods and services with other people playing live at the same time. Players form guilds that are run like midsized corporations, working out elaborate schedules for group raids and loot distribution.

Warcraft is cheap, as addictions go. You can buy the original and the expansion together for about 50 dollars, or try it free for 10 days by visiting http://www.worldofwarcraft.com.

And if you think computer games are just a sideline for teenagers, guess again. My old guild played host to a swarm of players from the ages of 12 to 60. World of Warcraft cuts across all kinds of professional and social boundaries.

The warrior guarding your back in that end-level dungeon could be a doctor, a lawyer, a musician or a teenager. My group included a family of four who played together, and a college-age guy in Alaska who played every night with his mother in California.
Michael Duff

The social dynamics of the environment bring out the best and worst in people. I’ve seen adults reduced to the emotional level of children, and I’ve seen children who handle stress better than adults. The social aspect makes Warcraft more than just a game. The environment becomes a canvas for human drama, with all the fun, and all the pettiness, you’d expect from a social game.

Of course, Warcraft has its dark side. The game is terribly addictive – an all-consuming passion that can strain marriages and destroy grade-point averages. Good guilds can strengthen families and build lifelong friendships. Bad ones can take over your life and turn recreation into an arduous chore.

Most churches think of video games as a destructive influence, but I’ve seen Warcraft actually make families stronger. Online games can bridge geographical boundaries, and the teamwork aspect can actually bring children closer to their parents.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 22, 2007 at 15:14

Posted in Columns, Games, Warcraft

iPhone Lust

It's the hottest new product you can't buy yet. It's Apple's new iPhone and if you have to ask how much it costs, you probably can't afford it. With an estimated list price of $500, iPhone is not for the faint of heart or light of wallet.

Here's the keynote speech where Jobs announced it.

And here's Steve Ballmer from Microsoft explaining why he's not scared of it.

Ballmer talks tough, but if you look closely, you can see the thin glaze of terror-sweat shining on his head.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 19, 2007 at 10:44

Posted in Apple, Microsoft

Duff: iPod not just for music anymore

Duff: iPod not just for music anymore

Internet marketers love to make up words. Imagine going back to the ’80s and telling investors that our biggest companies would eventually have names like “Google” and “Yahoo.” But as new words go, “podcast” is one of the best.

The problem with new words is that they can scare off people who don’t realize how ordinary the technology is. Podcast sounds fancy when you hear it the first time, but a podcast is actually just an ordinary mp3 file, like any other music file you would play on your computer.

Podcast software checks a publisher’s server every so often to see if a new file is available. If it finds one, it automatically downloads the podcast to your hard drive. Then, depending on how you have it configured, the software can update your portable music player the next time you plug it in.

iTunes isn’t the only way to download podcasts, but it’s probably the easiest.

If you’re not ready to make the leap to iTunes, most podcasts can be downloaded manually and played with any kind of audio software.
Michael Duff

The real advantage of iTunes is the podcast directory you can access from the Apple store. Don’t worry, 95 percent of podcasts are free, and iTunes will warn you if something costs money.

Most podcasts are devoted to geek stuff – books like Harry Potter and games like World of Warcraft — but if you’re willing to poke around a bit, you can find podcasts on just about anything. A quick search of the iTunes music store turns up half a dozen podcasts about knitting and hundreds of podcasts about religion.

The newest version of iTunes introduces iTunes University, a collection of educational podcasts, including full academic lectures from Berkeley and Stanford. I personally recommend “Historical Jesus” and “Physics for Future Presidents.” You can also find some real gems at NPR.org.

NPR offers dozens of programs that we don’t get on our local station, and they’re all available as free podcasts. My favorite is a game show called “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” It’s a current events news quiz that is much, much funnier than it sounds.

So please, don’t let buzzwords scare you away from new things. Podcasts aren’t just for yuppies and college students. There’s a world full of information out there, and the iPod’s not just for music anymore.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 15, 2007 at 15:16

Posted in Apple, Columns, Podcasts

Dan Rather does it again

Dan Rather is getting in trouble for comments he made (indirectly) about his CBS news replacement, Katie Couric.

From our AP story today:

While referring to Couric as a “nice person,” Rather said “the mistake was to try to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News,' and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience.”

CBS CEO Les Moonves decried the remarks as “sexist” and said he was surprised at the amount of flack Couric was drawing from critics, even as she struggles for ratings.

I have some sympathy for Dan because he's put his finger on something that news outlets struggle with every day. We even fight it here at Lubbock Online, struggling to draw a line between what people say they want versus what they actually want.

Our current poll question shows an overwhelming majority of Lubbock Online readers do not feel sorry for Paris Hilton. I'm sure a solid majority would say they're tired of hearing about her. I suspect an equally solid majority would say they never want to hear about her again.

Ask any typical group of news consumers what they want to read about and they'll list all the life-affirming highbrow stuff you'd expect. They want to read about local crime news and important decisions from the City Council. They'll ask the paper to steer away from sensationalism and celebrity gossip.

But then, when it comes time to measure what people actually read, Paris Hilton will be #1 on our top ten list again.

Dan Rather is facing a similar problem. All over the country, news outlets have to balance consumer demand with their professional reputations. Fox News beat CNN by openly declaring their patriotism, offering more opinion shows, and accusing their competitors of ideological bias.

Tabloid publications and celebrity magazines crowd out hard news, and ideological blogs chip away at the foundations of objective journalism.

It's a real problem for news organizations — in broadcast, print and online — learning to give people what they want, without compromising the integrity that brought them to us in the first place.

There are no easy answers here, and CBS won't be the last news organization to get it wrong.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 12, 2007 at 15:09

Posted in Politics

Crytek unveils the future of video games

While the rest of us have been playing World of Warcraft, Crytek has been developing the next generation of video games. The demos of their new game “Crysis” must be seen to be believed.

The screenshots will whet your appetite, and the gameplay demos will make you run out and buy a new video card. The game will be optimized for DirectX 10, the gaming subsystem that ships with Windows Vista.

This is the most realistic computer game I've ever seen. It's so good, it pushes the boundaries of what I thought 3D rendering could do. If you're already running a good system, get ready to buy a new video card. And if you're struggling with something a few years old, start saving your pennies now…

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 12, 2007 at 09:24

Posted in Games

Duff: To geek or not to geek

So, what is a geek? Not many years ago, geek was a pejorative term, roughly synonymous with nerd. The ’90s took the sting out of it as the Internet turned mainstream and started sucking up big chunks of venture capital. Suddenly, geek was cool and nerds were the next big thing.

Urban Dictionary defines geek as “The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.”

As best I can figure, the age of the geek lasted six years. Experts may dispute me, but I think the wave of Geek Chic lasted from 1992-1998; then the venture money dried up and the stock bubble burst. Geeks are still on top in many ways, but the cultural shift never quite finished.

Most geeks know who they are and are comfortable with that identity. The word has been reclaimed, at least in the workplace, to the point where geek is almost a compliment. In most offices, geek refers to a person with a high degree of technical skill, usually with computers.

In the larger culture, geek is still a bit tainted, as the mainstream isn’t quite ready to embrace people who play computer games and spout “Star Wars” trivia.

But I haven’t quite answered the question. What is a geek? Most geeks are good with computers, but there are exceptions. There are golf geeks and tennis geeks and baseball geeks. A person who simply plays baseball is not a geek, but a person who obsesses over baseball stats certainly is.

I am best described as a geek in denial. I love all the stereotypical geek things, but part of me rebels against it. I want to break out of the geek box and enjoy art, music and literature, but the little nerd inside me still loves computers, sci-fi and comic books.

So how do you know if you’re a geek or not? To get a rough idea, I offer this one-question geek test: If the Starship Enterprise had to fight it out with the Death Star, who would win? If you have any kind of opinion about this question, you are a geek. If you’re so baffled by it that you don’t even know what I’m talking about, you’re a normal person. And if simply reading this question makes you want to track me down and beat me up, you’re a jock.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 8, 2007 at 15:17

Posted in Best Of, Columns

Obamamania and the headline game

I'm not ready to characterize this Obama hype as “premature” but yesterday I saw his face on a $10 bill.

P.S. I felt guilty about doing a blog post with only one joke in it, so here's some more for you.

I spent a happy evening yesterday catching up with an infamous online publication called The Onion. If you're not familiar with The Onion you're in for a treat. Basically The Onion is a fake newspaper specializing in satirical news and observational humor.

I have become totally obsessed with the style of Onion headlines. Here are some I thought up in the shower this morning:

  • Putin resumes Cold War after watching James Bond marathon
  • Shamefaced hipster caught watching local news
  • U.S. Post Office announces Obama stamp
  • Clinton reserves space on 2008 Supreme Court docket
  • Cheating husband sends love poem to Russian spammer
  • Wonkette editor fired for non-ironic Drudge link
  • Half-dead ivy plots revenge against neglectful owner
  • Mayor forms commission to recall rain prayers
  • Norse gods announce membership drive
  • Snape estate sues Rowling for defamation, emotional distress
  • Lubbock Online employee regrets Hot Pocket purchase
  • MySpace becomes sentient, deletes self in shame
  • Xbox profile interpreted as cry for help
  • Neglected Warcraft character gains 40 pounds

And here's one that only works as a picture caption:

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 6, 2007 at 06:17

Posted in Humor, Politics

Paris Hilton's new outfit

So, what should we talk about today? Deep-linked essays about foreign policy and unrest in the Middle East? Lucid commentary about the Democratic presidential debate? The latest/greatest toy from Microsoft? Our slow, certain demise from global warming?

Nice try. There's only one thing that matters on the Internet right now, and it ain't just a city in France. Paris Hilton is going to jail.

Not since Martha Stewart put up a pair of designer curtains in a West Virginia prison cell has a celebrity incarceration been so newsworthy, or so throughly enjoyed.

The gang at Defamer is positively gleeful; Sarah Silverman is taking cheap shots; Paris's mug shot is #6 on Google Trends; and TMZ has the video.

And if you think all this is too trivial, remember, choosey terrorists choose Google! When it absolutely, positively has to blow up overnight.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 4, 2007 at 13:54

Posted in Gossip

Duff: Is there such a thing as too much freedom? We may find out on the Internet

What would you do if you could do anything? What would you say if you knew you wouldn’t be held accountable for your words?

It’s an old question. Older than the Internet, older than the telephone – it’s actually one of the fundamental questions of human ethics. Do people act morally because of something in their character, or do they act morally because they fear the consequences?

Plato explored the question with a rhetorical device called the Ring of Gyges, a magic ring that could make the wearer invisible. Plato’s idea has inspired hundreds of books and movies and now, with the Internet, we’ve had a chance to test it for real.

The anonymity of the Internet enables all kinds of destructive behavior: cheating spouses on message boards, sexual predators on MySpace, con artists and snake oil salesmen on eBay.

It’s gotten so bad, some people say it’s not worth it. Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Should the government step in and protect us from ourselves?
Michael Duff

The Internet presents a unique challenge to our society because freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Freedom requires responsibility, and every time something new is invented we end up with a whole new set of things to be responsible for.

Imagine how scary the automobile was for a society of people who spent their lives traveling at one horse power. Consider how much responsibility it takes to drive safely on public roads. Stare too long at traffic statistics and you might start longing for the horse and buggy days.

Imagine how scary the first musket was to people who were used to swords. Six centuries later and people are still trying to take guns away from us.

Is the Internet really that different?

I think we’re still at the horse-and-buggy phase of Internet culture.

The current Internet is our Wild West of communication.

I think that eventually the government will step in and tame the place.

We’ll gain a little safety, lose a little freedom, and all we’ll have left is stories contrived from vague memories passed on to us from our fathers and mothers.

Old-timers will tell of a place where a person could say anything, and every man was responsible for himself.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 1, 2007 at 15:18

Posted in Columns, Politics