Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hot Coffee and the recognition of a new dominant media

"Can a videogame lead to murder?"
-Ed Bradley, 60 Minutes

"All videogames are violent."
–Donny Deutsch, The Big Idea

"Mmm ... Coffee."
-Me, Things I've Said

Here we go again, fanning the flames of an already on-the-edge media culture. Rockstar Games, developer of infamous titles such as Manhunt, Midnight Club, and, most notably, Grand Theft Auto, has been the target of a media blitz unlike any since the days of Mortal Kombat's rise to general acknowledgement. The above quotes clearly illustrate how a couple of the mainstream media outlets covered the recent "scandal," and the comments have clearly helped shape public opinion. But consider the matter from my point of view.

The recent controversy stems from a user-created patch called "hot coffee" that unlocks a game segment in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas not available otherwise. Players with the PC, Xbox or PlayStation 2 version of the game can access this sequence by downloading files from the internet and hacking the game by using a cheating device known as "Action Replay." Once patched, players can meet up with a female character, take her on a date, and return home for some "hot coffee."

Out of the package, the game does not show what happens when the player is granted entry to the house, nor does it make the sequence available to gamers. However, the user-modified version grants access to a somewhat explicit (and entirely ill-logical) sex mini-game. According to Rockstar, the sequence was deemed too explicit and was removed from the playable game. Think of it as a deleted scene that never made it to the special features menu. This is not uncommon in film, especially when the content is under MPAA scrutiny.

However, Senator Clinton could not have been more outraged. Joe Lieberman, a long time opponent of violent or otherwise smutty game content, jumped up right beside her. It was as if neither remembered the "Tipper Rocks!" campaign during the early 90's which resulted in parental warning stickers being plopped on music CD's by the millions. Did content change then? No. It only became increasingly crass. Or perhaps both forgot about the September 2002 Federal Trade Commission report which stated, "There is much in the game industry's rating disclosure requirements that merits duplication by others."

I do not think a scene of topless nudity in any piece of media rated for adults should cause such uproar. Are politicians holding press conferences to discuss the impact of films like Scarface or Eyes Wide Shut? The game already allows players to ransack an entire city, killing and maiming all the way. If there was to be a controversy, let it be on the game's already fringe content, not on a scene of nudity that was actually taken out of the game. Ultimately, any controversy is only going to make the game more popular.

But all this is beside the point. GTA is clearly rated for adults, and carries the descriptor, "MATURE (Ages 17+) - Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs." Unless the U.S. Government intends to censor all forms of appropriately rated media, the moral bastions of the Senate should sit down and take a few notes.

If playing video games does anything, it provides players with the chance to do something they would never do normally: save a princess, win the Indy 500, score a touchdown at the super bowl, or wreak untold levels of destruction. The medium is unique in that it creates a world where the player is free to act out. Many games even tout the morality of a player's actions, forcing decisions of good and evil which, depending on the choice, will ultimately affect the outcome of the game. But seriously, who among us has not wanted to go all Burnout 3 (a high-speed racing game, for you non-gamers) on rush-hour traffic? I smile at the thought every day, but reserve my lust for highway mayhem until I am planted safely on the couch.

You can push a button in the real world and watch an animated character pick up a high-powered rifle on your television, but this is no "murder training." Its organized pixels on a monitor, arranged to look and move like whatever. Watching the talking heads go on about video games is painful for anyone who understands the industry. What the anchors did not say is perhaps the most telling fact of all: For the last two years, video games have out-grossed books, music, television and movies. The interactive segment has finally got the news-ie suits all uptight, and it is not really because of boobies or fake guns.

Major television networks have been losing a lot of viewers to alternative sources of news and entertainment. A large portion of today's media culture is turning to DVD's (a format popularized by the PlayStation 2), the internet and video games to get their fill. The corporate flicker-boxers have taken notice. I consider the most recent volley of attacks on the game industry nothing more than the mainstream press sensationalizing remarks made by overly-zealous politicians in order to attract a larger portion of the non-gaming population. With audiences dwindling, what else can the likes of Donny Deutsch and Ed Bradley say to keep the opinion-less from spending their time elsewhere? Scare the audience into thinking that games are a new means of hypnotizing a generation! "We are turning [the youth] into a league of super predators," said one incensed anchor. Nonsense, says I.

But now the sounding boards have mostly quieted. Recently, News Corporation, the owner of FOX and FOX News, DirecTV, countless newspapers, radio stations and websites, announced plans to purchase IGN, the world's largest game-industry news network. With Bush hawk Rupert Murdoch moving in on the gaming industry, fellow tele-mogul, capi-vangelists have shut their yaps about the evils of our past-time altogether. Corporate America has given the nod, and games are now, officially, the most popular form of entertainment in the world.

Parents, I’m talking to you. In the future, look at the game you are purchasing for your child. If you find sex and violence reprehensible, do not pay for it. Read the content descriptors. Games are not just for kids anymore. The average age of today's game player is 35, and nearly half of America's gamers are female. Only 12 percent of last year's games achieved a "Mature" rating, yet that small group garnered the most mainstream headlines. There is enough genre variety available to appease all ages. If you feel you must block your child's exposure to "alternative" media, simply glance at the bottom-right corner of any game case.

And let the politicians continue to demonize games. As an industry, we know their base does not want to recognize their own negligence for not reading the on-package content disclosure. Gripes go up, not down. And when these officials are only listening to a collection of the fearful, their public statements ultimately betray their ignorance of the issue.

As for me, I'll keep feeding on media untouched by Murdoch and crew, games included. And when I am not in the need to know, I'll make sure to spend some quality time in the "No Spin Zone" ... where all that matters is a little Italian plumber and a pink-clad princess in distress.

Stephen Webster is the author of "Electronic Horizons", a popular column published in The News Connection, a weekly community newspaper in North Texas. Republished with permission.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Nintendo gets Revolutionary

On Friday, Sept. 16, 2005, during a keynote address at the Tokyo Game Show, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata revealed THE must-play device of the decade. Nintendo, the perpetual innovator, was responsible for the first directional pad, the first pause button, the first platform game, the first adventure game, the first widely-adopted handheld gaming device, the first 3D adventure, and countless other staples of gaming and game design. Now, the standard-bearer has announced another industry first.

It begins

It has been over 20 years since the world's most-recognized mascot, Mario, came out jumping. Way back when, the Nintendo Entertainment System was the standard for video game controllers. Since then, every controller released by Nintendo and its competitors has been an improvement of the original N formula.

But this time, Nintendo has really gone and done it. The company's upcoming console is called "Revolution," and for good reason. Out of the box, the game machine features wireless internet capabilities. Nintendo plans to use the functionality to implement a game-on-demand service they are calling a "virtual console." The company's service will allow players to pick from and play any game Nintendo has made over the last 20 years ... for a small fee, of course. Some have suggested that on-demand game "credits" may be dolled out with the purchase of new games, magazine subscriptions, or even bottles of soda, a la i-Tunes. The machine is also backward-compatible with all GameCube software and hardware, and even functions as a DVD movie player.

Still, none of these features are as Revolutionary as the new controller.

During his Tokyo Game Show keynote, Satoru Iwata said that game controllers have become too complicated. He alleges that people who would not normally play a game are intimidated by all the buttons, thinking that it would be too complicated to learn. And he's right. Many non-gamers will look at one of today's controllers and give up before they even touch a button. In order for the industry to grow, Iwata says, game companies must find a way to attract new customers. Nintendo's goal is to expand the general definition of "game" and "gamer" by making their console's controller so intuitive and easy to learn that even your 80 year old grandmother would give it a spin. In this, Nintendo has succeeded. Big time.

Revolutionary control for revolutionary gamers? Yes.

The Nintendo Revolution, currently set to launch sometime in the spring of 2006, will mark a new era of game control. The new controller looks like a television remote, oddly enough. It has fewer buttons than any game pad since the NES. It does not feature an analog stick on the main unit. Instead, Nintendo chose a more ergonomic approach, utilizing a single directional pad, the 'a' and 'b' buttons, select, start and home. The unit also features a button that turns the console on and off, giving it a more 'remote' feel. But the Revolutionary bit sounds more like science fiction than next year's gaming standard. The Revolution controller can sense movement in the real world and translate it to movement in the game world.

To illustrate this, Nintendo let several journalists play around with their proof-of-concept demos that show off what the controller is really capable of. One demo let players pilot Mario's airplane around a tropical setting, whizzing through golden rings for coins. Reportedly, the player holds the Revolution controller like a paper airplane, using arm and wrist movement to manipulate the on-screen aircraft. Every flip, barrel-roll, loop-de-loop and dive is easily and accurately replicated on screen.

A video shown during Iwata's speech had an elderly couple playing a cooking game. A Japanese man used the controller like the handle of a utensil, scraping food off a digital grill. Another clip focused on a gamer holding two controllers like drum sticks, jamming along with the beat. Another had a player swinging Revolution's remote like a sword; a tempting proposition for any fighting game fan. Yet another showed a sports enthusiast holding the controller like a baseball bat, readying himself to knock one out of the park.

Game players used to a two-hand approach have not been forgotten either. Iwata focused on the expandability of the Revolution controller, showing video of a gamer holding a plug-in analog stick in his left hand and the Revolution remote in his right. A white cord connecting both devices combines the two for what Iwata called "nunchuck-style" control. This setup in particular promises highly entertaining first-person game experiences.

Colors. Revolutionized.

In a specific example of how the control would be adopted, Nintendo demonstrated a retooled version of last year's GameCube hit, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Players use the motion-sensitive remote for looking and aiming, with the 'a' and 'b' buttons being used for jumping and shooting. The attached analog was used for controlling movement, with the two buttons on the opposite side utilized for switching scan visors and jumping. While this sounds unorthodox, it offers a higher degree of control previously unknown to console gamers. Those who have played it say the nunchuck-style control is comfortable and intuitive.

Players with a good sense of the industry's history should be pleased as well. Not only will Nintendo's massive back-catalog of games be available on demand, Nintendo plans to release wireless versions of its old controllers for use on Revolution, naturally sold seperately. For those more frugal, the Revolution remote can be held horizontally, emulating, for all intents and purposes, the experience of using an NES pad.

How cool is that?

This clever innovation is a complete about-face for game makers. The company that set a 20-year standard for controllers has completely changed the how we think about manipulating digital worlds again. What was once an increasingly complex venture will soon become an easy-to-use, exciting innovation that can and will bring new faces into the world's largest entertainment industry. The only remaining piece of the puzzle is the requisite game software. But judging from the initial reactions coming from the development community, Nintendo's move to change the paradigm is causing a lot of excitement.

While the company has lost some of the popularity it laid claim to in the 80's, the move to simplify game controls could be enough to put them back on top. While there will be stiff competition, as always, Nintendo has claimed a major victory in the coming battle for the living room. The introduction of motion-sensing technology will bring interactive entertainment to a much wider audience than the gamers of today.

Next year, it may very well be your grandmother taking those "ub3r-l33+" game skills to task. Are you up to the challenge? We will march on a road of bones.


Talking Kinky with a Fried-man

When was the last time you paid close attention to Texas politics? If you are like 71 percent of eligible voters in the state, it has not been any time recently. Consider Kinky Friedman the Texan defibrillator; a jolt to the system that could very well topple the massive party politics system in the Republican dominated state. To the corporate-funded parties, he is nothing more than an independent wacko, chomping on a cigar and touting a cowboy hat. But, to most voters who hear what he has to say, he may just be the savior of grassroots democracy.

On September 9, 2005 in downtown Fort Worth, a group of about 350 gathered to hear Kinky Friedman make his best pitch for their votes and, ultimately, the office of Texas governor. "Ladies and gentlemen," sounded a short man with curly hair, "welcome the man breathing new life into Texas politics, Kinky Friedman!"

Kinky walked on stage in blue jeans with a black leather vest and tipped cowboy hat. Pausing to light his cigar, a flash of a smile drew a cheer from the crowd. "Why thank ya, folks. This is little Jewford," he said, motioning to the short man with curly hair. "He's a Jew and he drives a Ford. He could well be the future first-lady of Texas," said Friedman, laughing.

Introducing himself, Kinky mused, "Folks, this is not a political campaign, it's a spiritual one. A campaign really derives its values from Jesus. Well, Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce ... A large number of people actually. Most of them died broke, by the way. I promise not to be a governor who goes in broke and comes out rich, like so many of them have. I'm going to go in broke, come out broke, and be proud of it!" The crowd ate it up.

The Crowd Kinky Friedman drew was large and diverse.

But who is Kinky Friedman anyway? Kinky coined the name of his mid-70's country rock band, The Texas Jewboys. Riding on the of popularity of bands such as The Eagles and The Gram Parsons Band, Kinky's band, The Texas Jewboys, did not find financial success. However, at several points in his musical career, Friedman did find himself performing on stage with the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, eventually landing a performance on Saturday Night Live in October of 1976.

As the country rock wave toppled its crest, Kinky found his music career floundering. So, he turned to mystery novels. From 1986 through present day, Kinky has buried himself in the business of detective writing. With titles such as Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola and Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned (a play on words, obviously), Friedman developed a reputation as an unpredictable, unique, highly enjoyable author. Each of his 20 books loosely bases its main character on "the kinkster himself." Since April of 2001, Friedman held a column in Texas Monthly magazine entitled "Hail to the Kinkster." In Hail, circa November 2001, Kinky even detailed his friendships with George W Bush and Bill Clinton.

Back at the Fort Worth rally, Friedman continued to draw cheers from the crowd. "In the last gubernatorial race, we only had 29 percent of eligible voters voting. They spent $100 million to get 29 percent," he said. "In Iraq there was 58 percent. In Minnesota, with Jessie Ventura, there were 65 percent of eligible voters. So, it seems that 71 percent of us just didn't like the choice of plastic or paper."

"71% of us just didn't like the choice of plastic or paper."

Gaining momentum from the roars of the crowd, Friedman tipped his cowboy hat back and puffed a cigar. "The Republicans and Democrats have disappointed us here in Texas, I believe. The only time they get off their asses to do anything is to attack each other these days. That's what it seems like anyway," his comments eliciting louder and louder cheers from the crowd. "The last special session of the legislature proves that. [...] There is, with respect, a dysfunctional leadership to our state. The most important job [the governor] has is to inspire the people of Texas. With respect, this governor has failed to do that!"

Perhaps the dearest cause to Friedman, in this writer's opinion, is the poor state of Texas education. "When I'm governor," he began, "the first thing I'll do is get rid of teaching to the test. We're going to get rid of the T.A.C.K.S. test. That test alone, as every teacher in Texas knows, has done a real number on the special education kids, for one thing. Nobody wants them in their classes anymore because they draw down the results of this precious test. The gifted kids, they get screwed just as well by this test. This test, I understand, is costing more than it was supposed to make. [...] It's costing us a huge amount because it's not educating the kids, it is teaching to the test. It's gone." A group with shirts that read "Educators for Kinky" began cheering wildly.

"The Hebrew Hummer" follows Kinky's biodiesel campaign bus everywhere he goes.

"The governor, with respect, has appointed over 3,200 people [to the education system], most of them Republicans," continued Friedman. "If hed been a Democrat, he'd have appointed Democrats, or people that gave him $10 million to build toll roads, or whatever the reason. I would only appoint, to our educational system, people who have seen the inside of a classroom," he concluded to mighty fanfare.

Second on Kinky's agenda was the issue of renewable fuel. "Willie Nelsen, the 'Hillbilly Dali-llama,' is helping me with something," he said. "The two of us would like to sell Texas on biodiesel. Biodiesel is just renewable fuel. It gives the farmers work. It is 80 cents cheaper per gallon. It smells like French fries, so the truckers like it. In fact, there was a bear in Colorado two weeks ago that attacked a biodiesel truck ... which is kind of a downside to it. But, I'll tell ya what it really does," he said, pausing for dramatic effect. "It stops the Saudi's from playing the jukebox and us dancing to the tune."

"As Davy Crocket told the politicians in Tennessee, 'ya'll go to hell, I'm going to Texas!'" said Friedman with a southern zeal. "Now Texas is going to hell at the hands of those same politicians. I agree with Davy. I think Texas is worth fighting for. With respect, I don't see our governor really fighting for Texas," he declared.

"When I'm governor," promised Kinky, "I'll be the first governor with a listed telephone number. Several hours a day you can get in touch with me and talk to the governor. I believe, with respect, this governor is out of touch with the working people of Texas. I think, folks, that musicians can better run this state than politicians. Hell, beauticians can better run this state than politicians!"

"Sometimes people say that I have a lot of one-liners. Well, Col. Travis at the Alamo had one line, folks. One line in the sand that he drew. That, in my opinion, was the moment that Texas was born. I'm drawing a line too, because I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore! The line I'm drawing, you can't see, but it's in your heart. I promise you, if you cross that line with me, we're going to build a better Texas together."

As the crowd began to dissipate, Friedman stepped back up to the microphone and reminded everyone, "I'll be here, ya'll, so don't leave just yet. I'll stick around to talk to you and answer any of the questions you have." True to his word, three hours later "the gov" was still chatting it up. This reporter managed to secure about ten minutes, one-on-one with Kinky.

Kinky talks shop with a teacher after the event.

Stephen Webster, The News Connection: "My readers are concerned about the actions of our appraisal district. Their appraisals and property taxes have been going up tremendously each year. What would you do to change that?"

Kinky Friedman: "Property taxes are outrageous. I think, first of all, we've got to do something about education [funded by property taxes]. As soon as we get funding for education, weather its through legalized casino gambling, slots for tots, the trust for Texas heroes which raises salaries for teachers, cops and firefighters which is a beautiful idea, and transferring sports funding out of the education budget and letting the corporate sector bid on high school sports. That means that Nike or Bank of America would build the stadium. [...] Take the sports funding out of the education budget and it'll cut that total in half, I guarantee it. [...] They've been doing it in Georgia for three years now. Has our legislature gone to Georgia to see how it's working out? No. They've been too busy with cheerleading legislation here. They haven't had a chance."

SW: "You said that you would put the sexual predators in jail before pot smokers. What changes would you make to the law to reflect this policy?"

KF: "Well, I'll certainly loosen up [the Texas marijuana laws]. I'd have to because Willie Nelsen is going to be a big part of my administration! [laughter] Willie is going to be dealing with renewable energy. He has jumped in front of the right parade so many times; I know he's right this time: biodiesel is going to be a watch-word. At the rate we're going, we're running out of dinosaur wine. It is going to be a dollar a drop in 10 years, I'm not exaggerating. It's going to be ridiculous. So, let's try this. Let's try biodiesel and ethanol. Let's get these co-ops going across Texas with help from the governor's office. [...] Willie's bus runs on 100 percent biodiesel. Imagine if we could get just 30 percent biodiesel into all the school busses, all the state police ... That would cut the demand for oil and gas. It would lower the prices. Plus, it would be biodegradable and totally renewable. [...] Texas can lead the country in renewable fuel the way we used to lead it in oil and gas exploration."

SW: "What is your opinion of what took place in the wake of hurricane Katrina?"

KF: "When there is no leadership, there is bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is things like turning away the Red Cross, who are worldwide first responders in war zones. I mean, Good Lord! Turning away Willie's bus, which was filled with bottled water, and not letting people leave with pets ... that's just insane. All of those things are bureaucratic bull-shit, in my mind. The governor and the state have done a great job as far as New Orleans is concerned. I think Texas has done an amazing job dealing with [Katrina's victims] as well."

SW: "If you could summarize your likely opponent, Rick Perry, in one sentence, what would you say?"

KF: "He's kind of a Gray Davis without the personality. But, it's not about Rick. It's not about Kinky Friedman vs. Rick Perry. It's about Kinky Friedman vs. apathy. If we can get 29% up to 40%, I'm the governor."

All photos by Alison Wheat, photographer at large.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Katrina's Aftermath - New technology gives victims a sense of home, or lack thereof

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
--Barbra Bush, September 5, 2005, in reference to Hurricane Katrina victims taking shelter at the Houston Astrodome.

Last week was a dark seven days for Americans. As the poor and stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina sat and waited for help to arrive, thousands died unnecessarily over the course of six days. Six days of almost no Federal response. Imagine that. In the richest, most accepting, caring nation in the world, hundreds of thousands of people were doomed to an untimely death because of government negligence, pure and simple.

Several thousand victims now call Dallas' Reunion Arena home. On top of that, many have decided to stay in Texas and other states. What do they have to return to? Others, determined to return and rebuild someday soon, have found recourse in a little known Google product appropriately titled Google Earth.

To get Google Earth, go here ...

Describing Google Earth is a feat unto its self. To summarize in a single sentence, Google Earth is the real-world materialization of everything Internet, stitched into an intricately woven tapestry that is our world. Upon launch of the program, the user is presented with The World from space. Google-ers can punch up a physical address and watch as a 3D recreation of the Earth pans, zooms, and drops down, literally, on top of any specified location. Utilizing aerial and satellite photography, Google has created a working digital map of the world. But to Katrina's victims, many of whom cannot return for a long time, Google Earth is about all they will see of their home, or what is left of it.

Most of the country has been asking, "How can I help?" That's the Amazing thing about Americans: we all genuinely want what is best, even if we get duped once in a while. In the six agonizing days after Katrina bulldozed the gulf coast, as our benevolent Federal Government sat and watched, concerned citizens took to the internet.

By Friday, as the first National Guard units were being mobilized, the online grass already had roots. Utilizing images from the Remote Sensing Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa.gov), web-heads in the know began matching topographical data, analyzing before and after shots, and passing the data on to the Google Earth database. Taking a cue from these super surfers, NASA, Google, and Carnegie Mellon University compiled over 4,000 post-Katrina images of the gulf coast.

Saturday night, thousands of evacuees began turning to the internet for information, and the Google-ers came to the rescue. Many of these anonymous individuals are, and will remain, completely unconnected to this tragedy. But, as new Google Earth updates flooded in by the hour, former coast-dwellers took solace in seeing pictures of home.

While Google Earth certainly cannot offer anything as jarring as the photos and video seen on CNN in the days following Katrina, it can get a viewer close enough to identify a house or car. In 2001, just four short years ago, photography of Ground Zero in New York took over 14 days to land on the inter-nets. Last week, data was literally streaming within 24 hours. Evacuees fortunate enough to have web access have been able to find their homes, destroyed or just slightly dampened, and breathe a little easier.

The American people never fail to amaze me. Within 24 hours of Katrina's landfall, concerned citizens practically crashed the Red Cross' website with donations, and countered the waters with near endless material support. While the President golfed and took guitar lessons and went to birthday parties (no kidding), the American public swallowed hard, sucked it up, and spread the sacrifice as far and wide as possible.

If our Federal government is able to air-drop massive food and medical aid to tsunami victims on the other side of the world within two days, then certainly we could make it down to the gulf coast in a week. Or maybe President Bush did not think that we could type up Google and find out that Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), actually had no emergency experience at all. No experience, that is, until now. (Thank the bloggers for discovering his qualifications: managing the International Arabian Horse Association.)

"The good news is -- and it's hard for some to see it now -- that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, [...]" said President Bush on September 2. But from my perch, atop Blimp Google, hovering over the wreckage left in Katrina's path presents a daunting landscape. The only "fantastic" thing to come out of this tragedy so far is the public exposure of the uncaring, elitist ruling class ... Unless, by "fantastic" you mean Halliburton getting a non-compete reconstruction contract on the gulf coast.

We will surf on a river of the known. Mahalo.

Electronic Horizons is a column published in The News Connection (thenewsconnection.com), a community newspaper based outside of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex in Texas. Republished with permission.

Achieving Individual Energy Independence

This article is from my column, Electronic Horizons for 9/2/2005, published in North Texas weekly newspaper, The News Connection.

Ouch! Enough Already! As I am sure all of you know, gas prices are quickly becoming the most expensive tax we as Americans pay. Parking that SUV in front of the pump is quickly becoming an exercise in futility. As for that Hummer H2 in the driveway, well, no wonder it hasn't moved in months.

Yes, its crunch time in the U.S. of A., and the little guy (i.e. – me) is stretched thin just getting to work every day. If you cannot walk or bike, and have no access to public transportation, what are the alternatives to being pinched at the pump? While there is certainly a world of alternative fuels "coming soon," there are very few immediate solutions for the average driver. Clearly, the national fuel economy is choking on its own bile while oil executives rake in record profits.

Wouldn't it be great to get gas for free?

When Rudolf Diesel showed the world his new engine at the Paris World Exposition in 1900, he was running green, using peanut oil as fuel. As Mr. Diesel explained, "The diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it." Obviously, if the man created the diesel engine, he knew a thing or two about it.

Today, bio-diesel made from plant matter and animal fat is a growing market. Later this year truck stops selling bio-diesel blends bearing the likeness of Willie Nelsen will be popping up all over Texas and Oklahoma. The city of Ft. Worth already has four retailers that exclusively sell bio-blends, albeit for much more than standard diesel. But there is another way – the good old fashioned, American can-do way, that every man and woman can take advantage of. It's green, not so lean, and it has the potential to wrench energy independence back into our hands.

Hold on to your hat, cowboy. I'm talking about Veggie Power.

Give that Whopper in your hand a big squeeze. See that puddle of juice collecting in your lap? You can drive your truck with that. If Rudolf Diesel ran the original diesel engine on peanut oil, then what is stopping diesel engine owners from growing or producing their own fuel? The answer? Nothing!

Vegetable oil, the commonly used foodstuff, also holds the power to drive your car, heat your home, and bolster your nation’s economy. But, for this week, let’s just talk about converting your car into a green machine.

The only limitation to using vegetable oil in your diesel engine is an oxygenation process that is pre-applied to diesel and bio-diesel. Vegetable oil is much thicker than regular diesel. Therefore, it is necessary to heat the oil before injecting it into the fuel system. An $800 conversion kit is required to run on straight vegetable oil. A hose from the radiator runs to a copper coil in the tank, heating the oil to a more combustible state before it is pumped into the engine. While the oil heats, the engine will run on diesel or bio-diesel from the main tank, then a simple flip of an electric switch installed on the dashboard begins the process. The only major blow to the fuel's usability is that it gels in below-freezing temperatures (a caveat known to affect standard diesel as well). A separate filter is required to run a veggie-power car when it is colder than cold.

Several excellent resources on bio-diesel can be found here:

To obtain a kit to convert your diesel vehicle, go here:

While it may sound strange, vegetable oil in a diesel engine has not caused any known problems, produces far less emission waste, already boasts over 1,000,000 miles of pre-existing road testing, and actually extends the longevity of your car. The biggest drawback is the unusual smell coming from the exhaust. Stand outside your local McDonalds to get an idea of what a veggie-powered car smells like. I think that the smell of fries is much more acceptable than fighting foreign wars, don't you? Most people will not even notice the difference unless you tell them.

Speaking of McDonalds, this is the part where free fuel comes in. Most restaurants with deep-fryers have to pay to have their waste-oil hauled away. Since bio-diesel is 100 percent plant matter and animal fats, a tub of grease hauled out of the back of the burger emporium is almost as good as the pre-treated stuff. If you have the gumption and the need to achieve energy independence, most managers will be happy to give away the grease. Simply filter out the non-oil stuff, place the grease into a container and pour it into your gas tank. It's a win-win situation!

Make your Prius-owning neighbors raise an eyebrow at the deep-fried smell in the morning. Sure, they get 45 miles per gallon on their fancy-schmancy, super-expensive hybrid technology, but they still buy gas. With veggie-power, the particularly dedicated can get free fuel, and America's farmers get a little more support. How can this be a bad thing?

The most popular passenger cars that run on diesel are made by VW, and many can be found for very little money. One writer from Ohio said he bought a 1981 VW Rabbit for $600, paid $800 for a veggie-kit, spent two days installing the system and now enjoys free fuel to the tune of 35 miles per gallon. Others have reported resounding success in converting Turbo Diesel cars made by VW, Mercedes, Porsche and BMW. Veggie-conversion shops have been springing up all over the American Midwest. It is only a matter of time before someone in your town puts the effort into making the change. Most mechanics advertising service on the internet will perform conversions for anywhere between $600 and $1,000. Most drivers will recoup this cost within one year – or six months given today’s petroleum economy.

America is slowly moving toward energy independence. On the individual level, such independence is easier than it may seem. The war on terror, or the global struggle against extremism, or whatever Bush wants to call it, will be won by individual Americans. This country will find recourse not in the oil fields of Iraq, but the corn and wheat fields of our farmers. The soil turned by our ancestors will be the gardens of our victory, helping sustain future generations while protecting our own. Call me crazy, but veggie-power and the smell of french-fries sounds like a better alternative than nationwide conscription.

Said Rudolf Diesel circa 1911: "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time." And we will drive on a road of bones. Mahalo.

Electronic Horizons is a weekly column written by Stephen Webster. It can be found in The News Connection, a community newspaper in North Texas. Mr. Webster gives permission to republish and distribute this article. If you do so, please email swebster@thenewsconnection.com and link back to this page.

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