Archive for December, 2013

Fourteen short men traverse a forest and see wondrous things in ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’

December 31, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 31, 2013

Director Peter Jackson’s latest take on the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This, the second entry in Jackson’s trilogy based on The Hobbit, begins with a brief prologue setting up the quest at the heart of the story: The wise, powerful and quirky wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) arranges a meeting with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the heir to a dwarven kingdom that the dragon Smaug has conquered, dispersed and occupied.

Gandalf tells Oakenshield what he told the dwarf’s father: Rally the seven dwarven armies and drive the fire-breathing lizard from its roost in the dwarven-carved caverns beneath the Lonely Mountain. Oakenshield is willing to try this, but he has a problem. His people’s armies will only unite under the command of he who wields the Arkenstone, and that gem is among the jewels and precious metals that Smaug is lounging upon right now. Gandalf smiles upon hearing this, for he knows a thief that might be able to spirit away the Arkenstone… 

Cut to the present moment. Gandalf, Oakenshield, a certain Hobbit thief (Martin Freeman) and a company of 12 dwarves are working their way toward the Lonely Mountain whilst being hunted by a band of powerful, bloodthirsty orcs. Gandalf leaves the group just before they enter the foreboding Mirkwood Forest. The short-of-stature travelers are captured first by hungry spiders and then by irate elves. Heroism by the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins by name, is required in both cases to extend the quest.

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178 – car theft – add title-category-keywords-text

December 24, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 10, 2013

I grew up outside of New York City, the progeny of two honest-to-goodness city kids. Not only was I raised near what seemed to be one of the most dangerous places in America, it coincided with perhaps the most crime-ridden periods in the history of our nation. So when I say that I was instilled with a certain paranoia, I really mean it.

What habits did my parents teach me? In no particular order, here’s a list of things (not all of which relate to crime): Always wear your seatbelt. Always look both ways before crossing the street. Avoid showing or handling money on the street unless it’s absolutely necessary. Always read the fine print before signing. Always get, and keep, a receipt. Never ever ever leave your belongings unattended. Always keep a small emergency cash stash. Never leave anything of value — or, ideally, anything even remotely interesting — in plain sight in an unattended car.

These strictures have guided me through much of my life, although in certain cases, I’ve learned to relax them when appropriate. For example, if I’m repositioning my car — just moving it in or out of a driveway, say — I won’t always fasten my seatbelt. (I still typically feel guilty about this minor infraction, alas.) Also, I’ve become comfortable stepping away from my laptop computer if I’m at a coffee shop here in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and I need to use the bathroom or speak on the phone. (I rarely leave my smartphone unattended, however — both because it’s easier to walk away with one surreptitiously than with a laptop and because, um, uh, oh — because sometimes I need to look up stock quotes at a moment’s notice!)

Unfortunately, I paid insufficient attention to one of the rules last week, and I ended up paying a price for it.

On the day after Thanksgiving, after having breakfast with my parent in New York, I got in my 2000 Honda Civic (please form a line, ladies!) and set off for the return drive to Durham, North Carolina.

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To pay or not to pay? Conservatives grapple with Medicaid estate recovery issues

December 23, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 23, 2013

Last week, I looked at how the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare might be changing the scope and reach of Medicaid’s estate recovery provisions. As the Democrats’ Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continues taking effect, I suspect we’ll hear a lot more people raising questions about how these two programs interact with one another. 

Of course, some conservative writers have already expressed their thoughts on the matter, and they’re rather dire. At Breitbart, Debra Heine wrote ominously that “enables the Federal government to go after your estate after you die in order to pay for the healthcare expenses you have incurred while on Medicaid.”

Dr. Jane Orient, a conservative physician, offered this: “Expanding Medicaid to persons with modest assets will enable estate recovery to become a cash cow for states to milk the poor and the middle class.”

Blogger Alex Gimarc rendered this verdict: “I cannot think of a better way to impoverish the young and keep them impoverished for all time.” Gimarc then went on to quote George Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

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Life, death and health care costs: Long-standing estate recovery provisions and Medicaid expansion under Obamacare raise concerns

December 18, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 18, 2013

On Sunday, The Seattle Times printed an interesting feature by Carol Ostrom about a presumably unintended effect of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Here’s the heart of the story:

If you’re 55 or over, Medicaid can come back after you’re dead and bill your estate for ordinary health-care expenses.

The way [Port Townsend, Wash., resident Sofia] Prins saw it, that meant health insurance via Medicaid is hardly “free” for Washington residents 55 or older. It’s a loan, one whose payback requirements aren’t well advertised. And it penalizes people who, despite having a low income, have managed to keep a home or some savings they hope to pass to heirs, Prins said.

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Our odyssey: How one man, one parent and one dog made a drive that normally takes nine-ish hours in half a day

December 17, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 17, 2013

Sing, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after a sojourn in the cradle of Big Tobacco and Duke University. Many roads did he navigate, and many were the highways with whose intersections and traffic he was acquainted. Moreover, he suffered much by the weather while trying to speed his own way and bring his carmates safely home.

I live in Durham, North Carolina, but I grew up in the exurbs of New York City; my parent and the family dog still live in the house where I was raised. Last month, I drove down Parental Unit and Lucky the dog for a week-long visit.

The SUV was packed and loaded and rolling out of my driveway for our northbound return trip around 9 a.m. on Nov. 26, two days before Thanksgiving. I am accustomed to completing the drive between one home and the other — a journey I tend to make at least four or five times a year — in nine or 10 hours. Little did I know that it would be roughly 9 p.m. before we would reach our destination…

The weather was supposed to be rainy all day, and indeed we had not been traveling northeast on Interstate 85 for very long before I had to turn on the windshield wipers.

Our initial bit of drama, however, derived not from the skies but from the game of chicken that I began playing with the fuel gauge on the dashboard. We were about midway between the North Carolina–Virginia line and the I-85/I-95 merge in Petersburg, Va., when I noticed that the indicator was edging toward empty.

My parent noticed it too and called it to my attention. When were we going to stop for gas? I was asked. Um… Up ahead, I replied.

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A thief plants a seed: Intrigue abounds in ‘Inception,’ but it’s hard to find a reason to care

December 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 16, 2013

Dom Cobb is a master of his craft. The man at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 feature movie, Inception, is an extractor — an illegal operative who is handsomely paid to insert himself into dreams for the purpose of stealing secrets.

Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has a problem. Its nature isn’t immediately clear, but it involves his being separated from his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), and from their two young children.

The extractor is desperate enough to resolve his dilemma that he plunges himself, his wealthy employer and his team into a daring scheme. The plan hinges upon reversing the group’s normal modus operandi: Instead of stealing information from their target, they will plant an idea deep in his subconscious. The goal is to persuade industrialist heir Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to disband his late father’s global energy monopoly, and to do so in such a way that Fischer believes the idea is his and his alone.

Cobb and his associates — businessman and Fischer rival Saito (Ken Watanabe), deputy extractors Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Eames (Tom Hardy), dream architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) and sleep-inducing chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) — know that inception is supposed to be impossible, even though the extractor says that he’s done it. What most of them don’t know is that Cobb’s obsession with Mal (rhymes with doll) has grown so strong that it threatens to plunge the team into oblivion.

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‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ sets up battles but can’t deliver a coup de grâce

December 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 16, 2013

Some years ago, while I was working as a newspaper reporter on the K-12 education beat, I went to an English classroom to cover the first day of school. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, or the exact nature of her class, but I believe the instructor worked with poorly performing students.

At one point, either before the period began or during a particularly dull stretch as the teacher was laying down the ground rules for the coming year, I was standing in the back of the room. There was a bookcase beside me, and I idly picked up a paperback volume. The description on the back was at once intriguing and obscure; it seemed to involve a young woman with a bizarre name and a repressive futuristic society and an incipient rebellion…

The book seemed interesting, but it also appeared to be aimed at young adults, so I set it aside. Still, the title of the novel, and the names of the character or characters mentioned on the back cover, stuck with me.

This, of course, is how I became aware of The Hunger Games, the best-selling trilogy of Suzanne Collins novels about a dystopian future. (Well, is there any other kind of future?)

But not until the first Hunger Games movie (with that very title) came out last year was I actually exposed to anything beyond the broad outlines of the narrative.

If you’re not up to speed, the first entry in the trilogy goes as follows: Tough, smart young archer Katniss Everdeen is the female resident of impoverished District 12 who is destined to compete in the Hunger Games. This annual competition of the autocratic nation of Panem pits 24 young contestants — one male and one female from each of the dozen districts — against each other in a battle to the death. The last person standing is assured of lifelong fame and wealth.

But by the end of The Hunger Games — spoilers follow — in an unprecedented development, two champions are crowned. One is Everdeen; the other, Peeta Mellark, the baker’s boy who for years has secretly adored Katniss.

Mellark is fairly good-looking and pretty strong, but, like the female love interests in many a more traditional action-adventure tale, the character is mostly defined by his love for the protagonist.

I liked the first movie well enough, while recognizing its limitations. There’s something rather off-putting about an entertainment franchise that implicitly scolds its fictional audience for enjoying the sight of young people killing one another while simultaneously enticing its actual audience with the promise of young people killing one another. This is true even though the actual killing in the first Hunger Games movie is de-emphasized to the point of bowdlerizing the narrative.

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Voters don’t always care very much about policy details when it comes to picking a president

December 12, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 12, 2013

Recently, Robert Mann, a mass communications professor at Louisiana State University, wrote a Times-Picayune column panning Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chances of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016. The crux of Mann’s argument is telegraphed in the headline, “Jindal’s meager record at home won’t get him to the White House.”

Referring to America Next, a new organization affiliated with the Louisiana governor, Mann writes:

The group hasn’t yet proposed a single policy innovation, so it’s not clear exactly what specific programs Jindal will tout.

However, selling his vision to the nation may be a challenge. That’s partly because the policy-cautious Jindal really hasn’t revealed much vision unless, by “vision,” one means serving up warmed-over, off-the-shelf conservative ideas. As for leadership, his modest job approval ratings provide no evidence of a deep well of affection or enthusiastic support at home.

The problem is that whatever ideas Jindal ultimately champions will emerge near the end of his tenure as governor. Republican primary voters and the news media would be justified in asking, “If your ideas are so new and compelling, why didn’t you try them in Louisiana?”

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In a remote research base in Antarctica, ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’ walks among us…

December 10, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 10, 2013

It is early winter in Antarctica. A dozen men are stationed at an American research base so remote that they have no means of communicating with the outside world, even by radio.

Three strangers approach unannounced. There are two men, both Norwegian. One accidentally blows himself up with a hand grenade. The other man is shot and killed after he fires his rifle at an American. And the third visitor is…not what it seems to be.

The Americans know immediately that something strange is afoot, but a visit to the Norwegians’ wrecked and abandoned base does nothing to illuminate the mystery. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the Norwegians encountered some kind of alien life form.

This creature — this thing — can assimilate and perfectly mimic the appearances of its victims. It now seems to have infiltrated the American outpost. And it would like nothing more than to introduce itself to the animals and plants that populate the Earth’s more hospitable realms… 

This is the premise of John Carpenter’s The Thing, a 1982 science fiction/horror classic that subjects its characters and audience to a taut mixture of suspense and visceral shocks. The movie was written by Bill Lancaster based on a classic short story by John W. Campbell Jr. and directed by John Carpenter.

The man at the center of the story is helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, a pragmatic but thoughtful man of action who skates along the barrier between sanity and paranoia. MacReady is played by a bearded, intense Kurt Russell; as the story progresses, and the prospect of oblivion moves ever closer, his determination to survive — and to destroy the alien — shines through with increasing ferocity.

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Roses redux! Stanford bedevils ASU for a 38-14 win and a second straight Pac-12 crown

December 9, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 9, 2013

I’ll freely admit it. I was nervous going into Saturday night’s Pac-12 championship game. Yes, Stanford had already beaten Arizona State — embarrassed them, really, by a 42-28 score — earlier this year.

But that game had been played under very different circumstances: In the friendly confines of Stanford Stadium, where the Cardinal went 7-0 this year, vs. 3-2 in away games, and near the beginning of the year, when the Sun Devils were still gelling as a team, and before Stanford’s tendencies and flaws had become glaringly obvious.

But now ASU was the host, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, where the Pac-12 South Division champions had matched Stanford with a 7-0 home record. And obviously, the prize at stake last weekend, a conference title and a berth in the 100th Rose Bowl, was much dearer than a chance to go 3-0, which was in the offing when the teams met in September.

So yes, I was nervous when the game kicked off. And no — although I thought Stanford might win a close game, I never expected that what happened would happen.

It started off like a shootout. On the second snap of the game, Tyler Gaffney ran around left end and went for a 67-yard touchdown. The host Sun Devils took less than two minutes to respond, with D.J. Foster rushing for a 51-yard touchdown of his own.

What followed was more or less classic Stanford football, 2013 style. Kevin Hogan found Jordan Pratt for a 35-yard completion. A few snaps later, the quarterback rushed for 12 yards and a first down at the ASU 12-yard line. Next up: Gaffney for five yards, a three-yard ASU offsides penalty, Gaffney for three yards, and, on first and goal from the Sun Devils’ 1-yard line, Gaffney with the touchdown. Score: Stanford 14, ASU 7.

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