Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for September 2007

Duff: Get ready for another O.J. trial

Duff: Get ready for another O.J. trial and lessons we’ll learn from it

Grab some hairspray and dig up that Ace of Base album – it’s 1994 again.

O.J. Simpson has been charged with multiple felonies after a suspicious robbery and assault incident at a Las Vegas hotel. Entertainment juggernaut TMZ has the details, in audio, no less.

I have vivid memories of the first O.J. trial. I resisted the hype for a few months, then I gave in to it and became a full-fledged trial junkie. It was during my first days on Usenet. The newsgroup alt.fan.oj-simpson served as my introduction to the Internet, after years of confining my rants to local bulletin boards.

It attracted a perfect mix of readers and commenters, a perfect cross-section of Internet users at that time. Anal-retentive legal geeks arguing points of law, rabid civil libertarians, concerned housewives struggling to be reasonable and then, the loudest participants – visitors from alt.politics.white-power who seized on this as their last chance to be relevant in an age when even racism was passe. There were maybe six Klansmen left in the United States at the time, and all of them were on the newsgroup, screaming epithets and posting the most appalling racial insults.

It was the ultimate example of shock advertising. The Klansmen weren’t just running down O.J. – they were fighting for survival, posting phone numbers that led to recorded messages, desperately trying to recruit subscribers to their newsletter.

And now, 13 years later, O.J. Simpson is in the news again. Legal issues aside, O.J. just doesn’t seem as relevant in a post-9/11 world. We have bigger boogeymen to worry about now – bigger trolls under bigger bridges. In ’94, O.J. was used as a focal point for fear and discontent – a political decoy used to enrage both sides.

The Simpson trial was a moment of awakening for me. Until I saw the reaction to that verdict, I didn’t really believe we had racial strife in this country. Forgive me for being naive, but I grew up thinking we had all that stuff worked out. The civil rights movement emerged victorious in the ’60s and now we were all one nation, working together to build a better world.

The O.J. trial taught me we were two nations, three nations – a dozen nations pretending to be one. The O.J. trial taught me that tribalism was alive and well in America and that our legal system was not immune to it.

I wonder what we’ll learn from this one.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 28, 2007 at 14:26

Posted in Columns

Duff: ‘Bioshock’ tests gamer morality in a dark deco world

Duff: ‘Bioshock’ delivers the gamer into a dark world where choices matter

It’s one thing for a video game to exceed our expectations. The real trick is to redefine them – to give us things we didn’t even know we wanted.

2K Games has done that with their latest creation. It’s called “Bioshock” – a game that redefines the first-person shooter and sets a new standard for storytelling and art direction.

“Bioshock” excels in an area that most companies neglect. “Bioshock” has a plot – a powerful, complex and deeply emotional story that takes us beyond the realm of “mere” videogames.

The story is basically a rebuttal to “Atlas Shrugged.” Lead Designer Ken Levine has taken Ayn Rand’s notion of a society of unfettered geniuses and turned it into an art-deco house of horrors.

In “Atlas Shrugged,” a group of heroic industrialists secedes from society and builds a mini-utopia called Galt’s Gulch.

“Bioshock” takes that same premise and gives it a horror-movie twist. The game is set in 1960, in an underwater utopia built by a heroic industrialists. But instead of paradise, the geniuses of “Bioshock” have created a new kind of hell. The heroes discover a genetic fountainhead that grants them extraordinary powers and, coincidentally, drives them insane.

“Bioshock” is set in the bloody ruins of a city driven mad by genetic engineering. The city’s founder refuses to indulge in the “vice” of government control, even as residents turn on each other and blood flows in the streets.

Most gamers will ignore the subtext and fast forward to the next explosion, but “Bioshock” proves that video games can be used to tell mature stories in mature ways.

And it is this very maturity that has made “Bioshock” the subject of controversy. At key points in the game the player can make a moral choice that dramatically affects the power of his character and the nature of the game’s ending.

The game features an army of little girls who have been turned into monsters. Players can choose to save these girls or kill them to make themselves more powerful.

The killing happens off-screen and the game doesn’t shy away from moral judgments. Players who save the girls will be rewarded with a powerful and uplifting finale, while those who choose to kill them will be condemned.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with this because they still think of video games as kid stuff. But “Bioshock” is not for kids. “Bioshock” tells a thoughtful story full of depth, emotion and moral gravity.

It’s easy to condemn games like this, to judge them based on a sound-bite description of the plot and jump on the censorship bandwagon.

I’ll admit that was my first reaction, until I checked out some videos and saw the game for myself. “Bioshock” is a horror story, but it’s a smart horror story, thoughtful rather than gratuitous, far above the depravity of “Grand Theft Auto” and “Manhunt 2.”

Ready or not, the future of video games has arrived.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 21, 2007 at 14:27

Posted in Columns, Games

Mass Effect gets Mature rating for "hot alien sex"

Bioware's new game Mass Effect has received a 12 rating in the UK (and a Mature rating from the ESRB) for “moderate violence and one sex scene.”

Some versions of the scene include “breast nudity” and depending on the player's choices, may involve male on female or female on female sex with a human or alien character. The game's designers weren't quite progressive enough to include a male on male option, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time.

The scene is described as “brief and undetailed” which sounds a lot like my real life.

Pro-G <a href=”has the details along with a video introduction to the game.

I wanted to write a wry, disturbing and borderline offensive post about this scene, but Tycho at Penny Arcade beat me to it.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 20, 2007 at 09:40

Posted in Games

Too old to spank? Try Tasers!

Who do you root for when both sides are wrong?

Today the Internet is buzzing about Andrew Meyer, a student who was Tasered during a Kerry speech at the University of Florida.

Before I tell you my opinion, check out the video for yourself.

There are some important things we can't see here. Supposedly, Meyer ran up and grabbed the microphone before this, and had been asked to leave a few times before the police got there. Meyer also has a history of filming practical jokes.

I'd feel a lot better about defending this guy if this was a genuine political protest. It looks like shallow attention-seeking to me, an attempt to disrupt and hijack the proceedings, rather than to passionately be part of them.

I don't like Andrew Meyer. But just because I don't like somebody doesn't mean they deserve to be Tased. This is where I part company from most of the right-wing bloggers. (Warning! The preceeding link, chosen because it is eloquent and funny, also contains strong language.)

I'm amused by the number of “libertarian” bloggers who think the use of force on students is just fine, as long as the victim is a Democrat. I'm also amused by the left-wing bloggers who want to portray Meyer as some kind of hero. Naomi Wolf talks like he's the next Rosa Parks.

I'm concerned about this recent surge of Taser-happy cops, but I thought the UCLA library incident was much more disturbing than this one.

I think Udolpho is a bit too willing to let cops off the hook for this, but he's right about one thing. Andrew Meyer didn't have to get Tased to get his question asked. Even after he rushed the microphone, he could have asked his question, got his answer, and made his point without disrupting the event.

This was childish attention-seeking behavior from a kid who needs to grow up. I don't want to Tase Andrew Meyer. I want to Tase his parents. Parents, don't let your kids turn out like this. If you don't spank them at age 6, the police will do it for you, 15 years too late.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 19, 2007 at 10:03

Posted in Politics

New York Times finally gets it right

Eventually, even the New York Times gets it right.

They haven't thrown the switch yet, but NYT is about to take their opinion columns from behind the pay firewall and make Dowd, Krugman and company available for free again.

They're also planning to open up their archives back through 1980 so the entire history of the paper can be accessed from Google or Yahoo.

The powers that be finally realized they can make more money off advertisers than they can from subscribers, and that Google searches bring in more traffic than direct visitors. A blinding insight that's been obvious to Internet users since 1996.

We still have a long way to go when it comes to improving Lubbock Online, but I'm proud to work for a paper with open archives and no registration.

This change is particularly welcome in the case of the New York Times, because their archives really do capture important moments in American history. I'm a huge Mark Twain fan, so on a whim, I put “mark twain oxford” into the Times search box and came up with this priceless story from 1907:

“At this point the author fished a dilapidated cigar from his pocket and finding it of no use threw it overboard, declaring that he would not smoke again. A moment later he begged a cigar from a friend.”

And while you're tromping through history, don't miss this one.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 18, 2007 at 12:39

Posted in Journalism

Duff: Looking for romance in Second Life

Duff: Looking for romance in Second Life

I tried to find the romance in Second Life. I really did.

Last week, one of our bloggers sent me a Wall Street Journal article about the online game called Second Life. The article, by Alexandra Alter, is one of the best I’ve seen. It chronicles the troubled marriage of a man who puts his virtual life above his real one, even to the point of having a virtual “wife” who he has never met in the real world.

Alter’s article was so compelling, I decided to try Second Life for myself.

I made myself a generic avatar and set off in search of adventure. After three hours I quickly understood why people use this game for infidelity and cybersex. Unless you’re a programmer or a graphic artist, there is literally nothing else to do.

The graphics are crude but serviceable, and you can tell people have put some real work into it. Second Life is really the Home Depot of computer games. Everything in the game is a do-it-yourself project. Amateur animators can design houses, furniture, games and knickknacks, each with their own set of rules and animations.

And all of these creations are for sale. Everything in the game is bought with “Lindens.” Currently, 250 Lindens can be traded for one dollar U.S., making the game a source of real-world income for people with the right skills. Designers have built and sold entire islands in this game.

The central figure in the WSJ article ran a virtual nightclub, complete with bouncers, bartenders and strippers – all run by real people.

Second Life held no attraction for me because there is no “game” here. They might as well change the name to Mid-life Crisis. Call me shallow, but if I’m not killing Orcs within 10 minutes of character creation, your design concept is fundamentally flawed.

The Wall Street Journal article ends with the virtual protagonist driving his virtual Harley-Davidson down a virtual mountain road. Why is it always motorcycles? And why are guys in Harley-Davidson shirts always driving cars? I guess by the time you have enough money to afford your dream bike, you’re too old to look good on it.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but spending real money on fake things sounds ludicrous to me – like going out for dinner so you can buy pictures of steak.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 14, 2007 at 14:28

Posted in Columns, Games

Duff: Reality TV snares another victim; I am now part of the problem

Duff: Reality TV snares another victim; I am now part of the problem

I am now part of the problem.

For years I’ve complained about the declining quality of mainstream entertainment – the sad spiral of inanity as good shows are slowly replaced by reality TV.

I’ve tried to stay above it, but a friend told me I should watch “Big Brother,” and all the current episodes were available online.

I clicked the “Play” button and everything went black. The video started playing and when I looked up again, I was hooked. I knew all kinds of things I had never wanted to know, my head filled with intimate details about people I wouldn’t ordinarily make eye contact with.

“Big Brother” is the most obvious example, but the major networks didn’t invent voyeurism; they just gave it a better script.

Voyeurism is a staple of Internet culture. The craze started about 10 years ago with the ascension of a camgirl named Jennifer Ringley. Ringley started a site called “JenniCam,” where she basically pointed a camera at herself and broadcast the results, uncensored, 24 hours a day.

JenniCam inspired hundreds of competitors, guys and girls willing to expose their lives for attention and cash. These days most cams are sponsored by sex sites, but for a short period in the ’90s, broadcasting your life on the Internet could almost pass for art.

“Big Brother” takes the same concept mainstream. Most people just watch the show each week, but diehard fans can pony up some dough and watch live feeds of the contestants over the Internet. For a mere $15 a month you can watch total strangers eat, sleep, argue and lounge by the pool.

Kind of like living in a dorm again, except you can turn them off. It’s worth the three-day trial, just so you can disabuse yourself of any romantic notions that Hollywood may have left in your head.

As much as we might dream of spying on our neighbors, the reality is mind-numbingly dull.

After watching three hours of the unedited “Big Brother” feed, a reviewer for the Web site Television Without Pity was begging for “Vicodin and a handgun.”

“Big Brother” is an avalanche of banality, carefully edited to look like drama.

I’m afraid the Internet has taken the edge off many of our favorite sins. Webcams prove that the quickest way to get over a vice is to drown in it.

Written by Michael B. Duff

September 7, 2007 at 14:29

Posted in Columns, TV