Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for May 2009

Message boards of the rich and famous

A few years ago, I formed a light long-distance friendship with a successful screenwriter out in LA.

After launching a barrage of questions that all boiled down to, “How can Duff get famous?” I put the narcissism aside and started asking about the interesting stuff.

I wanted to know the inside story. How do million-dollar deals get made? Who decides when a script is good enough to get funded? Where do the gatekeepers go to decide the future of the entertainment industry?

These decisions used to be made in person but increasingly they’re being made on Internet message boards. My friend let it slip and tried to move on to other topics but I made him go back.

I said, “Wait a minute. You’re telling me there are secret Internet message boards where the Hollywood elite gather to decide the future of the industry?”

He said, “Pretty much, yeah.”

I asked if he’d let me see one and he laughed in my webcam-transmitted face.

I’ve never been one to believe in conspiracies, secret societies or the Illuminati but I find the idea romantic. I want to live in a world ruled by an elite conspiracy of supergeniuses, but surely if someone was ruling the world it would make more sense.

I suspect that the world is run by a collection of tedious workaholics, like characters on the West Wing who’ve had all their charm and sex-appeal removed.

But the dream remains.

Not all “elite” web sites are secret. Black Card Circle.com made waves last year by sending out special black cards to invite high-profile people to their “8-8-08” launch. Unfortunately, many users thought the invites looked like marketing material and threw them in the trash.

I’m not cool enough to be invited to Black Card Circle but their marketing materials are unabashedly elitist: “Black Card Circle’s community is comprised of ‘Influential Individuals’ whom are defined as ‘CIAs’ – ‘Connectors, Influencers, and Alphas’. CIAs possess either financial capital, social capital, or both, and include, but are not limited to, respected professionals, upstanding community leaders and inspiring entrepreneurs.”

I love the use of the word “Alphas” here. It makes me think of Bill Gates with his foot planted on the face of a defeated enemy, beating his chest like Tarzan.

It sounds like a great opportunity, a secret message board where you can mingle with the rich and powerful. But in my experience, the more powerful a person is in real life, the less likely they are to have computer skills.

We’ve seen it over and over again — respected politicians and celebrities reduced to gibbering rage when they see what people on the Internet are saying about them.

Swapping message board chatter with the rich and famous may sound like fun, but I suspect the result would be less impressive in real life.

I suspect it would look something like this:

“New to this Internet thing but thought I’d say hi. What is everybody doing?” — owinfrey


“This board is free but watch out for spammers. And look for me on Twitter!” — ngingrich

“‘Sup, Newt. Bill wanted me to invite you for barbecue next week.” — hclinton

“CAN I COME?” — jbiden

“Is it just politicians here or can normal people post?” — stillbono

“Who are you calling ‘normal?'” — sting99

“Any TV people here?” — rphilbin

“Reeeeeeeeeeg!” — kgifford

“Is that Regis Philbin? I thought he was dead.” — dhasselhoff

“OMG, it’s the Knight Ridder!” — mcyrus

“Oh for god’s sake. It’s Knight RIDER. How old are you? And I wasn’t THE Knight Rider. It’s not a title. It’s not a job. It was just the name of the show. God, I hate when people do that.” — dhasselhoff

“You got off easy, Hoff. Twenty years since my show went off the air and people still treat me like an illiterate thug. Oh, BTW, the Blizzard people asked me for your number. You wanna be a Death Knight or a Priest?” — mistert

“Nice work, Hoff. Pick on a teenage girl. That’s it, you and me are done professionally.” — cbale

“Hey guys, check this out. It’s a photo of a cat, but it’s got words printed on it like the cat is talking. It’s saying something cute, like a person would, but it’s spelled wrong because it’s a cat, get it?” — shawking

“Oh god, more Ron Paul spam. Anybody know how to get yourself off a mailing list?” — hclinton

“You could always fake your death.” — rnixon

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 28, 2009 at 18:44

Posted in Best Of, Columns, Humor

The Agency brings superspies to the MMO arena


Here’s a video from Sony’s new game The Agency.

At first glance it’s a James Bond-style superspy and mercenaries game that you can play in a persistent world with other players, but it’s got some innovations that I’m really looking forward to.

In this game you’re not just managing your character, you’re actually building your own spy agency, collecting NPC operatives who will work for you and perform missions while you’re offline.

That’s the part that really grabbed me. The notion that you can assign tasks to your operatives right before you log off the game. You can assign sub-agents can infiltrate enemy bases or set your Q-Section to work on an amazing gadget and they’ll make progress on that goal while you’re at work.

Your agents can even “phone home” and reach you in the real world, sending emails or text messages to alert you when those tasks are done.

That’s a powerful concept that I haven’t seen done before. You know your guildies are still playing when you log off World of Warcraft, but when you introduce the NPC labor element, you end up with a game that never ends.

You can break up your real world life with updates from the game and (hopefully) get real-time info about what rival agencies are doing. At the highest level, this could turn the game into a kind of active-passive balancing act, where you turn your non-game time into a kind of passive NPC chess match and back it up with real time raids when you get home.

I’m not particularly interested in first-person shooters, but I love the idea of being a spider in the center of this web, dispatching agents via text message to sabotage my enemies while I work on TPS reports.

I’ll be curious to see how well this is implemented, and what it will look like when other companies take it to the next level.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 26, 2009 at 09:03

Posted in Games

Some impressions from Lost, Season 1

I just started Lost Season 1 this week. Last night was the episode where they confronted Ethan. Here’s a quick summary:

JACK: Okay Claire, we need you to walk out into the jungle alone so the creepy madman can capture you again.

CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby!

JACK: I’m gonna take that as a yes. Now Locke and I are going to retrieve the guns that we really should have used the first time. Hey Sawyer, have a gun!

SAWYER: Already got one. Got all kinds of things back here — food, guns, three generators… Come back for lunch and I’ll have a complete Sizzler buffet.

JACK: Whatever. Just come with us.


WALT is trapped in an improvised shelter by the POLAR BEAR.

POLAR BEAR: Finally, some screen time. Roar! Slaver! Bite! Slash!

WALT: *cower*

MICHAEL: We’re coming son! Locke and I just have to navigate this improvised obstacle course!

POLAR BEAR: *reading script* What? Me again? ROAR!

WALT: Stay away from my dad! *stab*

POLAR BEAR: I am the Animal Incarnation of Fear, kid. You can’t just *stab* me!

MICHAEL: Stay away from my boy! *stab*

POLAR BEAR: What did I just say? Screw this, I’m gonna go try and eat the French chick again.


CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby!

CHARLIE: I won’t let anyone hurt you. Your total dependence and lack of personality feels like reciprocal love to me.

CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby! Wait…I remember… Hospital gowns and bright lights, an army of men chanting “Aaron!” as they march to war…

JACK: Oh lord, not again. Can somebody reset Claire?

CHARLIE presses a button on the back of Claire’s neck.

CLAIRE: I’m Australian! I’m having a baby!

JACK: Okay, reverse-ambush time. GO!

ETHAN: Do you like my creepy makeup?

JACK tackles ETHAN

ETHAN: I have the strength of five men but I am overcome by your Righteous Doctor Fighting Skills.

LOCKE: Jack’s got him!

ETHAN: Hey Locke, what’s up? It’s me, Ethan. Dharma company picnic, 1976? Me and Randall Flagg won the sack race?

SAWYER: You’re busted, pal. Hey Sayid, you got any bamboo shoots left?

ETHAN: Curses! Captured by the enemy! I’ll have no choice but to reveal all my evil plans, laying out cruicial plot points for the next five…

CHARLIE: Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

ETHAN: Ugh! Six bullets to the chest! My secret supervillain weakness! I die!

JACK: Charlie, what the hell?

CHARLIE: Television is a rough business, Jack. One premature plot reveal and I’m back to playing Victorian Thug #3 on Doctor Who.

KATE: I don’t have any lines in this scene. I’m just here to provide an unrealistic standard of female beauty. Oops, my t-shirt is stretching across my chest again! Why does that keep happening?

ABRAMS: Cut! I love this job.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 20, 2009 at 10:15

Posted in Humor, TV

Twitter tried to kill Patrick Swayze today

Fortunately, it failed.

A hubbub broke out on cyberspace earlier in the day after a Jacksonville, Florida radio station sent out an instant message on the popular Twitter social-networking site saying the 56-year-old actor had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. 97.9 KISS-FM, sent out a Twitter message about Swayze to its 309 followers after seeing a report on another Web site. The report spread like wildfire across the Internet as concerned cybercitizens forwarded it to their friends.

I found a Twitter site for 97.9 but I found no reports of Swayze’s death and no report of injury to any member of the “Dirty Dancing” cast.

Did they remove it? Are they innocent?

Either way, Swayze is one of the hottest topics on Twitter right now.

As a fan of the movie “Roadhouse” I would like to start the counter-rumor that although Swayze was stalked in the woods and attacked by cancer, he was able to use advanced Taoist martial arts techniques to rip its throat out and deliver a righteous beating to the evil corporate land developers who tried to infect him.

Hang in there, Patrick. Nobody puts Swayze in a corner.

UPDATE 5-20: Our sister paper in Jacksonville has more detail on this story, although they can’t confirm or deny the role of WFKS KISS-FM in the rumor.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 19, 2009 at 18:13

Posted in Movies, Twitter

Further proof that I am old

My friends and I made an unfortunate choice for lunch today. We decided to eat in a place that was across from Lubbock High.

We didn’t notice the proximity when we first sat down, but as we were waiting for our order, the giant bells rang and a couple hundred teenagers came pouring out of the building.

Within a couple minutes, the dining room was full of teenagers and my friends and I ended up trapped, a lonely Circle of Old in the middle of the room.

I want to stress that the kids didn’t do anything to irritate us. They weren’t screaming or throwing things or being rude. Just the sheer weight of numbers made us uncomfortable. I was torn between a desire to be 16 again, with no responsibilities beyond sitting in classrooms all day and no worries beyond whether or not I still had my lunch money, and a strange curiosity about the kids themselves.

They didn’t look like “thugs” or “gansters.” Nobody was dressed wildly or indecently. They were just kids, in jeans and baggy t-shirts. If anything, they looked more respectable than we did in the ’80s, simply because they were wearing darker colors.

I couldn’t really spot the nerds, although one girl did have a Harry Potter lunch box. That endeared me to her, somehow, and to the whole generation, to know that someone could carry a Harry Potter lunch box to high school and not get mocked for it.

People weren’t quite as forgiving of my Return of the Jedi lunchbox in 1986.

So there we were, three grown men with jobs and homes and kids of our own, and when the teenagers invaded…we ran away.

I wish I could spin this as some kind of judicious retreat, but the fact is, we ran. We grabbed our food and ran like hell, looking over our shoulders in case the kids decided to attack.

We ended up eating lunch on the benches outside the A-J, scarfing down food as our plates tried to blow away. All because we couldn’t stand to sit in a dining room with 30 harmless teenagers.

I’m sure being 16 sucks, and if I had it to do over again I’d hate it as much as I did the first time, but watching the kids sit and talk and joke around with each other today, I missed it, just a little, and wished there was a way to tell them how lucky they are.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 19, 2009 at 13:28

Posted in Humor

Extended forum downtime

Lubbock Online has decided to discontinue its forum service for now.

We apologize for the inconvenience and we still welcome reader feedback in the form of story comments, blog comments, email and letters to the editor.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 19, 2009 at 11:24

Posted in Admin

Lawsuits and public outrage drag Craigslist into the real world

Responding to lawsuits and public outrage following the murder of a Boston-area masseuse, Craigslist has agreed to drop “erotic services” ads and have staff members screen ads posted to its “adult” category.

Part of me is sad to read this, even though I think Craigslist is doing the right thing. Craigslist’s capitulation represents the latest intrusion of “real world” values into unfettered libertarian cyberspace. It represents an unfortunate coming of age for a medium that used to operate beyond the reach of speech codes and vice law.

For years, the Internet has been a kind of libertarian reservation, existing in a parallel universe where taxes, copyright laws, speech codes and community standards did not apply. Government was content to ignore the Internet for a decade or two, but I’m afraid this was more a function of ignorance than tolerance. Regulators stayed away from the Internet because they didn’t understand it and because it wasn’t big enough to bother with.

Generally these things don’t become legislative priorities until somebody makes money or until somebody gets hurt.

The Internet is on our legislative radar now, and the real world is slowly invading utopia. The party’s not over yet, but people are starting to fidget and look for their coats.

The Internet may have started as a government program, but it gave birth to a uniquely libertarian culture, inspired by the hacker ethic of the early ’80s. These early adopters were dedicated to free speech, free software and the unrestrained flow of information.

Not a big deal when the network was restricted to a few thousand computer geeks, but now the Net is starting to disrupt the lives of “respectable” people.

Craigslist started as a pure expression of hacker values, a free service facilitating free trade and free expression. But now Craigslist is making money. Once you start making money off a community, you enter into an unspoken agreement to protect and support that community.

This obligation isn’t always stated explicitly, but that’s the assumption under these laws. That assumption of community responsibility is at odds with the freewheeling spirit of the Internet where anything goes and every user is expected to be responsible for himself.

Americans like to talk about freedom, individuality and personal responsibility, but these values assume a fundamental respect for community and shared values. The Republicans advocating free markets and the Democrats advocating free speech assume that those freedoms will be restrained by an unspoken sense of decency and respect for the community.

We assume that people will honor social conventions of their own free will, and when they don’t, somebody has to make a law.

You can’t have freedom without responsibility, and the Internet makes it very easy for people to avoid responsibility for their words and actions.

The clerk at the corner store is expected to run off children who come to look at adult magazines, even when there’s not a law on the books to forbid it. But on the Internet there is no clerk. There is no sure mechanism for enforcing community standards and no social cost for breaking them.

The fundamental problem here is a lack of social feedback. In the real world, a person who tried to crash a funeral and say rude things about the deceased would be thrown out of the building and ostracized by his peers. But on the Internet, a commenter can be anonymous and post anything he or she wants without suffering a social cost.

This lack of accountability puts the Internet in a unique category. In the real world, social conventions can be enforced by peer pressure. On the Internet, we have to take a brute force approach.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need laws to make people take responsibility for themselves, but we’re living in a world where government is expected to care for us and social conventions must be spelled out in 20 pages of legalese.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 15, 2009 at 18:19

Posted in Columns

Should Google be responsible for what people do with its maps?

If I had to explain this column in terms of an academic paper, I would call it “a meditation on the moral consequences of information technology.”

I like to think of myself as spanning the border between science fiction and science fact. The best science fiction explores the moral consequences of technology that we don’t have yet.

How would we act if we could spy on our neighbors any time we want? What would society look like if we could manipulate the genetic heritage of our children?

Now imagine yourself living in a science-fiction universe where you could get the answer to any question by typing it into a machine or view historical maps of the world on a perfect virtual globe.

That science fiction concept has become fact in 2009 and has created moral problems that even Ray Bradbury couldn’t predict.

On Monday, we published an Associated Press story by Jay Alabaster. Google Earth has recently added historical maps of Japan to its library, and this information is creating a unique moral problem for citizens of modern-day Japan.

To American ears, the availability of historical maps sounds like a dry academic issue, the kind of news you skip over unless you’re a historian or a geography professor.

But Google is facing angry accusations of prejudice and responding to inquiries from the Justice Ministry because the publication of these ancient maps is enabling discrimination in the present.

Alabaster’s article explains: “The maps date back to the country’s feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the ‘burakumin,’ ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves.”

The caste system is long dead, but people who live in these areas still face discrimination based on where they live or where their ancestors lived.

Alabaster quotes an anonymous source who works for a large, well-known Japanese company: “If we suspect that an applicant is a burakumin, we always do a background check to find out.”

These areas have been known to reduce nearby property values, and residents of these areas have been the target of graffiti and racial taunts.

This information has been circulating on bulletin boards for a while now, but Google’s maps have revealed new blocks of “dirty” addresses and made geographic discrimination easier for anyone who cares to look – a textbook case of a moral dilemma created by information technology.

If someone uses the information provided by Google to harass, demean or harm a person from one of these areas, is Google responsible for the crime?

This information has been available for decades, but you had to visit libraries and do tedious academic work to use it. It’s not the existence of information but the improved presentation of information that has created this problem.

Google is making it easier for bad people to do bad things, but is that really Google’s fault? I think of Google as a kind of common carrier. If criminals use telephone lines to harass people and plan crimes, can you really blame the telephone?

If thieves get blueprints from the library and use them to plan a theft, is it fair to blame the library?

I like to use gun control analogies here. A gun is a weapon but it can’t fire itself. Google makes information available but can’t control how people use it.

Maybe it’s a privacy issue? Individuals can remove themselves from phone directories and put themselves on do-not-call lists. But how do you hide yourself from something as general as a map?

As of this writing, Google has removed the offending maps from its software. The historical maps have been altered to blank out data from the sensitive neighborhoods, but I’m not convinced that the company did the right thing.

Information is a resource. It can’t be “good” or “evil” by itself. The consequences aren’t harmful until a person acts on that information. I think we need to hold individuals responsible for their actions and protect providers who make these tools available.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 8, 2009 at 18:20

Posted in Columns

Tagged with

Forums are down

UPDATE 5-14: My editors are deciding what to do about the forum issue. We’ve got a couple options we’re considering but nothing has been decided yet. I looked into reactivating the old forums but the company that made them is out of business and we can’t control the spam on them. I’ll update here as soon as I know something.

We’re experiencing technical difficulties with our host and have had to take the forums temporarily off-line. We apologize for the inconvenience. We should have them restored in the next day or so. Comment functionality on our stories and blogs is still available.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 7, 2009 at 15:43

Posted in Admin

Bioware moderator stirs controversy in game forum

The High Secret Order of Forum Moderators had to issue an emergency alert this week when one of our brethren exceeded his authority on the Bioware forums and accidentally challenged 30 years of Star Wars history.

I was leafing through our secret newsletter and saw the sad story of Bioware community manager Sean Dahlberg sandwiched between “Ten ways to abuse your power” and “Five new slang terms that are actually obscene.”

Like most forums, Bioware’s system automatically catches and censors keywords that contain profanity and explicit language. Their system was set to automatically censor the words “gay” and “lesbian” since they are frequently used as insults.

But as is so often the case, rules that were meant to prevent discrimination are now having the opposite effect.

This was a minor incident until Mr. Dahlberg tried to defend the policy with a most unfortunate choice of words. Instead of just dismissing the issue or declaring the subject off-topic, Dahlberg said, “These are terms that do not exist in Star Wars.”

It’s hard to say if Dahlberg took his logic too far or simply not far enough. He could have declared the topic inappropriate or gone one step further and made the case that there is no sexuality in Star Wars.

The latter statement is kind of sweeping but I think it would be easy to defend. There is passion in Star Wars. There is romance in Star Wars, but the series has always stopped short of addressing adult sexuality.

That would have made for an interesting discussion but it wouldn’t have made headlines or set off any kind of Internet firestorm. Instead, Dahlberg’s statement was interpreted as a declaration that there is no homosexuality in the Star Wars universe – a dangerous statement to make on any fan forum.

To understand why, you have to understand the psychology of a dedicated Star Wars fan. Fans of these forums don’t just consume Star Wars material, they study it the way theologians study the Bible, searching for hidden connections and undiscovered nuances in the text.

In this context, Sean Dahlberg wasn’t just making a statement about his forum, he was questioning the meaning of scripture, bringing up a question that may require a Star Wars Council of Trent.

The resulting firestorm inspired press releases, blog posts and a good deal of original scholarship, as fans scrambled to provide examples of homosexual relationships in the Star Wars universe.

Game designers dismissed one example as a “scripting bug” while a well-known Star Wars author declared that a pair of Mandalorian soldiers in her work were more than just friends.

Most of this is just standard Internet contrariness. The Internet can turn anybody into a rebellious teenager. A forum rule is like a closed door. It’s not enough that there are thousands of blogs and forums where this discussion would be welcome, people want to talk about it in the one place where it’s not.

There’s also a larger issue here, a tendency that has come on very strong in my generation. Where baby boomers and their parents were content to grow up and leave their childhoods behind, Generation X seems determined to hang onto its childhood and bring it into the adult world.

You can see it in our entertainment, as comic book movies rule the silver screen and books like Harry Potter cross over to an adult audience. But we’re not just trying to extend our childhoods, we’re trying to project adult values and adult flaws onto our childhood heroes.

My favorite example is the recent “Iron Man” movie where the fight scenes and special effects are merged into the context of a real human life. Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Tony Stark as a real person who built fantastic things.

In this case, the mix of childhood memories and adult storytelling worked. Other films have missed the mark. Bryan Singer tried the same trick in “Superman Returns” but didn’t quite pull it off.

The original “Superman” film was classic family entertainment. Audiences went to the new one expecting an ordinary comic book movie and found themselves watching a kind of Greek tragedy. Singer’s Superman was brought down to Earth in a way that made a lot of fans uncomfortable.

This forum incident was blown out of proportion because Star Wars is like the last holdout against this trend. Fans walked into “The Phantom Menace” expecting a Star Wars film aimed at the adults they had become. Instead, George Lucas went the other way, abandoning adult fans in his quest to sell toys to children.

But fans are still hungry to see adult stories told in the Star Wars universe. “Revenge of the Sith” was dark and violent, but it lacked the emotional complexity that fans were waiting for.

Early reviews say that J.J. Abrams has successfully moved Star Trek into an adult context. Hopefully the Star Wars reboot won’t be far behind.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 1, 2009 at 18:21

Posted in Columns, Movies