Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for December 2007

Duff: Amazon's electronic book reader has good qualities, but it's not cheap

Amazon’s electronic book reader has good qualities, but it’s not cheap

When it comes to useful inventions, it doesn’t get much better than the book.

Lightweight, portable, durable, usable in a wide variety of environments – books can be shared, archived, distributed and resold. Now, online bookseller Amazon has reinvented the book, and it looks like Amazon got a lot of things right.

Kindle is a sleek, simple, lightweight device that can store up to 200 books. Users can buy books through the Kindle’s permanent wireless connection or upload their own documents from Microsoft Word. The display is crisp and clear, and Amazon claims that the battery life will let you read “War and Peace” before you run out.

It also lets you read newspapers and blogs with your wireless connection, although the list seems weirdly limited to me. The newspapers that come with this device are special versions that aren’t as thorough, or as frequently updated as a standard newspaper Web site.

The built-in Web browser is limited and can be problematic to use, particularly if you visit sites that use a lot of Java. The device also allows access to Wikipedia, so you can access the latest authoritative misinformation about your favorite topics.

Gizmodo’s Wilson Rothman took the Kindle for a thorough test drive and reported that in some situations, the device was actually easier to use than a real book. In bed, for example, the next page buttons made it easy to turn pages, and the size and weight of the device allowed him to hold it without tiring his arm out.

The friction rubber grip makes Kindle easy to handle and lets it rest safely on difficult surfaces – like say, by a sink or on top of a toilet tank. The keyboard layout is weird and a bit difficult to manage, particularly with the space bar on the left side.

Most reviewers seem to be happy with e-ink. The screen isn’t backlit, but any illumination that works for a real book will work for Kindle as well. Books from Amazon cost $9.99 each and legacy books from Project Gutenberg can be converted for free (or for 10 cents if it’s transmitted over wireless.)

So what’s the downside? Mack McNeely from our Open Sources blog wrote his own review of the Kindle and was quick to point out its shortcomings, from a digital copyright perspective. Once you buy a book with your Kindle, you can’t share it, sell it or give it away. You’ll also be sending your content and usage details back to Amazon every time you read something, and if you violate their terms of service, they reserve the right to cut you off, turning the Kindle into a very expensive piece of modern art.

But that’s not the biggest drawback to the Kindle. My biggest concern was the $399 price tag. At that price, I think I’ll stick with paper.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 21, 2007 at 13:43

Posted in Columns

Duff: Rumor mill says GameSpot critic lost his job over bad review

Duff: Rumor mill says GameSpot critic lost his job over bad review

Jeff Gerstmann lost his job last week. Jeff was editorial director at GameSpot, one of the most popular (and most profitable) game sites on the Web.

Jeff worked at Game-Spot for 11 years, churning out hundreds of high-quality reviews, building his reputation as a guy who knew his stuff and didn’t pull punches.

Jeff was at the top of his game – one of the most respected figures in gaming journalism. Then he lost everything in a very public (and very suspicious) firing.

The rumor mill says Jeff was fired for giving a bad review to a game called “Kane & Lynch,” a product that Eidos had just spent six figures to advertise on GameSpot itself.

Every corner of GameSpot was plastered with “Kane & Lynch” ads when Gerstmann’s review went up, giving it 6.0 on a scale of 10. Jeff’s video review (available on YouTube but quickly pulled by GameSpot) is absolutely devastating.

Jeff tears this game apart, using a crisp, authoritative tone that leaves no room for doubt.

“There’s no one to root for here,” Jeff says, “not even in a cool anti-hero sort of way.”

He calls “Kayne and Lynch” “an ugly, ugly game” and warns us that “every third word out of every character’s mouth is the f-word.”

This looks like a classic example of a company using nihilism and profanity to cover up lazy design. Jeff’s review makes that crystal clear.

GameSpot eventually restored the video and released a statement categorically denying the rumors, but the damage had already been done.

The remaining GameSpot editors sound like they have guns to their heads, praising Jeff in careful, measured tones, quickly retracting statements that sound critical of management, hiding behind legal agreements that keep the principals from talking.

The Eidos message boards are under siege from an army of angry gamers, convinced that pressure from their marketing department got Jeff fired.

CNET execs are implying that Jeff was fired for the unprofessional tone of his reviews, but the “Kane & Lynch” review is effective precisely because it is professional.

It looks like GameSpot is bowing to pressure from advertisers here. To quote the guys at Penny Arcade, “It’s the firm belief internally that Jeff was sacrificed. And it had to be Jeff precisely because of his stature and longevity. It made for a dramatic public execution that left the editorial staff in disarray.”

Pulling the video makes it look like Jeff was fired for his virtues, and the weak denials from CNET are just making it worse.

Game review sites walk a fine line in the best of circumstances. Their livelihood depends on the good will of the people they’re reviewing. There’s a constant battle between sales staff and editorial, and in this case, it looks like the sales guys won.

I’d like to propose a solution that will help GameSpot untangle this knot. They already use a graduated 10-point scale for reviews – just assign a dollar value to each point.

Drop a hundred grand on advertising and we’ll give you a guaranteed 8. Or maybe just replace every rating with a dollar value and skip the point system entirely.

It’s called prestige pricing. If it costs more, it must be worth more, so a company that’s willing to spend 100 grand is obviously making better games than a company that can only spend 20.

Jeff is a talented guy who will land on his feet after this. GameSpot and Eidos may not be so lucky.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 14, 2007 at 13:44

Posted in Columns, Games

Duff: Surfer dude discovers theory of everything – maybe

Roger Highfield, science editor for the UK Telegraph, has discovered the next Einstein – or not.

On Nov. 14, Highfield published a story with the magnificent headline, “Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything.”

The theory has something to do with E8, a mathematical shape that occurs at many different levels of physics. Garrett Lisi thinks the universe is shaped like E8 and that this shape will become the dominant framework in physics – a kind of Periodic Table for subatomic particles.

The source material includes pretty pictures and contains many big words. I’d like to tell you more about it, but the truth is, I dove into this research and was in over my head so fast, it felt like a ride at Texas Water Rampage.

I took some courses in college, but now my knowledge of physics can be summed up in one phrase: “Fire is hot, and sometimes when I drop things, they fall.”

I realized I was out of my depth, so like any good geek, I Googled it. Here is a summary of my findings: “Garrett Lisi is the next Einstein!” “Yes he is!” “No he’s not!” “Yes he is!” “No he’s not!” And so on.

Look for details of this search in my upcoming paper, “Limitations of Google as a tool for scientific research.”

Internet research wasn’t going to cut it this time. I needed a physicist, and fortunately, I have one on speed dial. One of my favorite professors at Tech was Dr. David Lamp in the physics department.

Lamp has a gift for explaining complex things in plain English, which is probably why he got stuck with the “Physics for Misunderstood Artists” course that I took in college.

I rang up Dr. Lamp and asked if he remembered his favorite C-student. This kind of thing isn’t really his specialty, so he directed me to Richard Wigmans with the High Energy Experimental Particle Physics group.

Internet critics have alternately canonized and crucified Lisi, but Wigmans is taking a wait-and-see approach. Physics profs hear theories like this every day, but Wigmans said, “The difference in this case is that the author is a person with a respectable scientific background. He holds a Ph.D in physics from a good university, and this is the reason that other respectable scientists go through the trouble of reacting to his article.”

Wigmans works in experimental physics and is not particularly concerned with theory.

“Until now, string theory has not provided anything in terms of verifiable predictions, and is therefore not considered very meaningful by experimentalists such as me,” he said. “From what I read, it seems that some aspects of Dr. Lisi’s theory might be experimentally tested. In that case, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which will start operations next year – and in which my TTU group is heavily involved – may provide some judgment.”

Right or wrong, Lisi’s theory can be tested, and when the data come in, representatives from Texas Tech will be on the front line.

While the media is fueling the hype around this theory, Lisi himself is trying to tone it down.

“I hope people can keep in mind that this is just a theory,” Lisi writes. “It has no experimental support, and it might be wrong. I think it’s got a shot, which is why I work on it.” He warns, “Don’t go crazy, people; but yes, it is pretty damn cool.”

Local experts are willing to wait for evidence and give this theory a chance, but for many casual readers, the issue has already been decided.

Hey, I saw “Good Will Hunting.” I know how this stuff works. The cool guy with the surf board is always right and the boring old guys at the university are always wrong.

It’s a fundamental law of the universe – the physics undergrad version of the American dream. But judging theories based on Hollywood story conventions is not good science or good journalism.

Garrett Lisi is a great story. Writing about him doesn’t make Roger Highfield a bad journalist, but making up your mind too quickly might make you a bad reader.

That’s the great thing about science. It’s the one place left in society where evidence counts for more than authority, where being proved wrong may be the greatest moment in a man’s life.

Maybe the critics are right and string theory is our best tool for understanding the universe, or maybe E8 is a Rosetta Stone and Garrett Lisi will have the last laugh.

The question will ultimately be decided by evidence, so in the meantime, don’t believe everything you read.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 7, 2007 at 18:11

Posted in Best Of, Columns, Science

Physics for Misunderstood Artists (Final Exam)

1. You need to hurl your demo tape through the open window of a record executive's SUV, traveling at 60 KPH. Assuming no wind, what is the optimum arc for your throw?

2. The lead singer of Fall Out Boy has decided to fill the Grand Canyon with his tears. How many tears will this take and how long does he need to cry?

3. You need to destroy a canvas before your boyfriend realizes you have painted him naked. How many milliliters of spray paint will it take to hide your shame?

4. Your mom caught you smoking pot and wants to burn your novella about death. How hot should the oven be and how long does it need to burn?

5. You have purchased a trumpet to interrupt a George Bush speech during commencement. How many decibels will it take to drown him out?

6. The cops are beating the crap out of you after you have interrupted a George Bush speech during commencement. How much force can they apply to your bones before you need to go to the hospital?

7. Marilyn Manson has decided to honor Satan by bathing in the blood of Michael Bolton. How big a container will he need to hold it?

8. The campus health service has refused to renew your prescription for antidepressants, so you have decided to break one of their windows. How big a rock do you need?

9. You are spiking the punch at a residence hall party and want to render the TA unconscious for 2 hours. How many milligrams of Everclear do you need?

10. You think you see Avril Lavigne sucking down a chili dog at Wienerschnitzel. How close should you be to get a good picture?

EXTRA CREDIT: If REM is walking in a forest and a tree falls on Michael Stipe, what octave will his screams be in?

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 7, 2007 at 10:56

Posted in Humor, Science

Could you do this at your office?

Lip Dub – Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger from amandalynferri on Vimeo.

Could you do this at your office?

Introducing the phenomenon of the office dub. A random group of co-workers starts with a single song and films themselves lip syncing to it. I wanted to try this at the A-J but the Hank Williams people got in a big fight with the Johnny Cash people and six of our editors went to the hospital.

The TMBG people, consisting of me and well…me, did not have enough mojo to assemble a group. If you're willing to lip sync Particle Man on camera, please reply to this post.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 4, 2007 at 11:52

Posted in Humor, Video