Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Best Of’ Category

Duff and the Hacker

Back in the 80s I ran a bulletin board — a kind of primitive web site that you had to call and connect to over the phone. These systems had message boards, file downloads and live chat, but mine could only support one person at a time.

I come home from class one day and find my board gone — not just down, but gone. Deleted. Destroyed. Wiped off my hard drive like it never existed. I called my friends and connected to every board in town, initiating a city-wide manhunt for the jerk who took me down.

I had no proof, but I found a suspect — a small-time hacker who liked to brag about all the ways he could destroy a bulletin board. I don’t remember his handle, so I’ll just call him “RaZor.” RaZor talked big, and my friends said he was smart enough to kill a bulletin board, so I called in some favors and learned his real name.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

July 22, 2008 at 19:54

Posted in Best Of, Culture

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

Michael Duff thinks you're Uber!

The Internet can be a sleazy, confusing place – filled with spammers, con artists, unethical advertisers and traps for the unwary.

I fell for one of these traps last month and now I’m paying the price. I signed up for a social networking site called Uber that promised to let me create, share and collect media – whatever that means.

I got an e-mail invitation from a friend and signed up, thinking that he had discovered some kind of hidden gem on the Internet.

I signed up for the service and foolishly allowed them access to my Gmail address book. I wanted Uber to search my addresses and match them with the names of people who had already signed up.

Instead, it sent out invitations to every person I had ever sent an e-mail to. Every friend, every vendor, every co-worker, every blogger and every ex-girlfriend on my list got an e-mail begging them to join Uber and hang out with me.

I don’t know how it works in your life, but I’m not actually on speaking terms with everybody in my address book. Some of these people have rejected me. Some of these people have been rejected by me. Some of them are people who wrote me hate mail. And some of them don’t remember me at all.

Some of them are family members that I like to keep at arm’s length. Some of them are friends I haven’t seen since high school. Some of them are readers who contacted me and never got a proper response.

Some of them are celebrity bloggers that I was trying to suck up to. Some of them are executives in my company who barely know I exist. And some of them are editors who like to send me work e-mails at home.

But Uber doesn’t care about any of that. Uber wants them all. The invites go out, and the next day I get a dozen confused responses.

Some of them ask me who I am and how I got their address. Some of them remind me that we agreed never to speak to each other again. And some of them want me to write them back, describing every major event of my life since high school.

I should have known better, but even the most experienced Internet user can hit the wrong button now and then. And if you’re one of those unfortunate people who got an invitation to join Uber – please accept this apology.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 31, 2007 at 14:30

Posted in Best Of, Columns

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

Voices from the Hellmouth, 8 years later

Today, eight years after Columbine, I'm reminded of one of the best examples of Internet journalism.

It happened on Slashdot, a haven for old-fashioned geeks and net-savvy teenagers worldwide. Slashdot is still popular, but in '99 it was the heart of the Internet. Jon Katz wrote a series of provocative columns called Voices from the Hellmouth. While the rest of the media was talking about kids, Jon was talking to them.

Kids who don't talk to anyone talked to Jon, in a forum where they felt safe.

Voices from the Hellmouth, April 26, 1999:

“People who are different are reviled as geeks, nerds, dorks. The lucky ones are excluded, the unfortunates are harassed, humiliated, sometimes assaulted literally as well as socially. Odd values – unthinking school spirit, proms, jocks – are exalted, while the best values – free thinking, non-conformity, curiousity – are ridiculed. Maybe the one positive legacy the Trenchcoat Mafia left was to ensure that this message got heard, by a society that seems desperate not to hear it.”

Jon projected human faces onto a pair of kids who had been dismissed as monsters, and whatever you think of his conclusions, I think his efforts were worthwhile, if only to generate responses like this:

“Yeah, I've had some fantasies about taking out some of these jerks who run the school, have parties, get on teams, are adored by teachers, have all these friends. Sure. They hate me. Day by day, it's like they take pieces out of you, like a torture, one at a time. My school has 1,500 kids. I could never make a sports team. I have never been to a party. I sit with my friends at our own corner of the cafeteria. If we tried to join the other kids, they'd throw up or leave. And by now, I'd rather die.”

Eight years ago, the Internet gave a voice to a group of kids who couldn't talk anywhere else. While parents and counselors were wringing their hands trying to think of ways to make these kids talk, they were on Slashdot talking to Jon — hiding behind keyboards and pseudonyms — sharing their anger and their fear.

Today we have another killer, another memorial, and another hate-filled manifesto. In '99, a lot of troubled kids sympathized with Dylan and Klebold. Columbine was seen as the symptom of a cultural problem.

But I'm not seeing a lot of sympathy for Cho Seung-Hui. I can't find a 2007-equivalent of Jon Katz, struggling to put his actions in context.

Maybe our culture has changed, or maybe this killer communicated too well. I think Cho sabotaged himself. When a killer is silent or mysterious, we can project things onto him. We can imagine his personality in broad strokes. But this time, we have a video, immediately following the crime.

NBC has taken a lot of heat for showing this footage, but I think they've done a real service here; not by humanizing the killer, but by stripping away the mystery and romance that could have made him a martyr.

Without the manifesto it might have worked. Our society has always been fascinated by killers. They're romanticized in movies and on television, glamorized in novels and tabloids. Without a clear statement from Cho Seung-Hui, misguided people could have projected their values onto him.

But when you see the real video his insanity becomes obvious and his rants sound hollow. Cho may have seen himself as a romantic figure, but the camera strips away his pretensions and shows us the banality underneath.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 20, 2007 at 12:12

Posted in Best Of, Politics