Archive for March, 2014

On the far side of the world, an Italian explorer ponders life, death, the universe and everything

March 31, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 31, 2014

The Island of the Day Before, the 1994 novel by Italian author Umberto Eco, is likely the most complicated book I have ever read from start to finish.

The convoluted tale opens with a most unlikely coincidence: Roberto della Griva washes up onto a deserted ship moored off an island in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the 17th century. Della Griva is the sole survivor of the Amaryllis, having been lashed to a makeshift raft by a sailor aboard that vessel amidst a violent storm. By some strange fortune, waves cary him to the Daphne, a seemingly abandoned Dutch expeditionary vessel.

Our protagonist is the lone heir of a minor nobleman who grows up on a large rural estate in territory that is variously ruled by French, Italian and Spanish forces. War summons a teenaged della Griva and his father from their quiet existence and claims the life of the elder man. Thus unmoored from home and family, the imaginative and fanciful Roberto is freed to pursue lively (and sometimes dreary) adventures — first in the salons of Paris and then on the far side of the world.

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Scandals in Charlotte city hall and the California state house

March 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 28, 2014

Wednesday is a day that many political aficionados in Charlotte, N.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area will long remember.

Patrick Cannon, a longtime city council member, radio host and parking-company business executive, had been Charlotte’s mayor for less than six months when he was arrested Wednesday. Federal prosecutors charged the 47-year-old Democrat with accepting more than $48,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents who purportedly wanted help developing real estate projects in North Carolina’s largest city.

The illicit gifts included a hefty amount of cash as well as the use of a luxury apartment and a trip to Las Vegas. The politician, who was the target of a three-year-long sting operation, allegedly sought as much as $1 million in additional money and favors.

Cannon could face as much as 50 years of prison time and $1 million in fines if convicted on all counts. He resigned the mayoralty hours after being arrested.

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A hand to remember, but not to savor

March 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 27, 2014

Thanks to a combination of basketball, confusion and cancellation, my schedule this week, unusually, has allowed me to play World Tavern Poker several nights running. The first tournament on Wednesday night brought me a hand to remember — although not, alas, one to savor…

I’d won a few hands, nothing major — mostly by making bets that no one called. After the blinds went to 500-1,000, and shortly before the mid-game break, I was dealt pocket aces while sitting in the small blind.

There were nine or so people at the table. About six of them called the big blind. When my turn came, I checked my cards, counted my chips and bet 3,000 on top of my small blind.

Mark folded his hand in the big blind. Tony, the man sitting immediately to his left, considered and then called. Everyone else folded.

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Good hands and bad hands: Ruminations on recent poker plays

March 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 26, 2014

I think the first time I ever played poker was in college; senior year, if I recall properly. I played occasionally with friends and friends of friends since then, but never regularly — until last year.

After making the top 10 of a charity poker tournament in early 2013, I decided to start playing World Tavern Poker. This is a free no-limit Texas Hold ’Em league hosted by hundreds of bars around the country. There’s no money at stake, and there’s no signup fee. (The business model of the league seems to be that people playing poker at bars and restaurants are more likely than not to purchase food and drinks at said establishments, which splits revenue with the organizers.) It’s been an interesting ride.

Recently I’ve had a stretch of playing WPT a few nights in a row. (The prospect of simultaneously playing cards and watching college basketball motivated me to play on Saturday and Sunday.) I wanted to write about some hands that I played on Sunday and Monday.

On Sunday, I won…not a single hand. (There may — may — have been one walk, which is what happens when no player calls the big blind, and she or he recoups that blind plus the small blind, if applicable.) I don’t think I played particularly badly; things just didn’t fall my way.

There was one memorable hand that I didn’t play early in the evening. I believe it was queen-nine off-suit, a combination I won’t normally bet. It stuck in my head because the pot ended up being split between two players holding queen-ten; as it turned out, my queen-nine would have been the winning hand with two pairs.

Bars typically host two holdem tournaments at a time, often starting at 7 and 9:30 p.m. I lasted past the break of the second-tournament. I went all-in with my last black chip as the small blind. One player called the big blind of 2,000 chips, so the main pot was three black chips with a side pot of two black chips: 5,000 in notional currency at stake in all.

I was holding ace-seven. Out came the flop. It included an ace. No one bet. The turn came, and then the river. Still no bets.

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Sex, death and abortion bans

March 25, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 25, 2014

Kevin D. Williamson posted an article Saturday morning at National Review about abortion. The piece is titled “The Symbol of a Lie” and subtitled “Wire-hanger abortions pre-Roe are pure myth.”

(Roe, of course, represents Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that states had no right to regulate abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy — but you knew that.)

The headline to Williamson’s piece is a bit misleading. The thrust of his argument is not that abortions induced with wire hangers were rare prior to Roe; rather, it is that illegal abortions were not very dangerous.

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Barefoot and sobbing: A visit from my neighbor

March 21, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 21, 2014

Author’s note: If you believe that you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 or (800) 787-3224 (TTY), or visit www.thehotline.org. Click here for a list of state-specific advocacy organizations and other domestic-violence resources. 

I was going over some paperwork at home Thursday at about 20 minutes to 6 p.m. when someone knocked on my door.

I went to the front door and asked who it was. Even before there was an answer, I heard labored breathing.

The person on the porch said that she was a neighbor and that she needed to borrow my telephone to call 911. She said she’d been attacked by her husband.

My door has no peephole. I went to a window and peeked out through the blinds. I saw a woman there, obviously distraught.

I pulled out my phone and dialed the emergency services line. “Hold on, I’m calling 911,” I said.

My call was answered as I pulled the door open: “911, what’s your emergency?” the operator asked.

“Hi,” I said. I handed the phone to the woman on my porch. “It’s 911,” I told her.

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Vanished: What happened to Malaysian Airlines’ missing airplane?

March 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 19, 2014

I have no idea where the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet has gone. The plane’s fate is a mystery, at once compelling and horrifying. 

The flight took off from Kuala Lumpur shortly before 1 a.m. local time on Saturday, March 8. Its transponder was deactivated around 1:21 a.m.; from that point forward, the Boeing 777’s apparent path can only be tracked through radar pings and analysis of radio transmissions. Since then, there have been no ransom demands, no credible claims of responsibility, no known messages from any of the 239 missing souls. 

In this day and age, it beggars belief that more than 200 people equipped with cell phones could be coerced into maintaining communications silence. No; Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s crew and passengers are almost certainly dead. As for the plane itself, is it lying on a seabed, or is it being readied for some unknown purpose?

This is one of those strange circumstances where the best-case outcome appears to be a tragedy: That Flight 370 crashed in the ocean, with the loss of all aboard. All of the other possibilities are either unsavory — the jet is being loaded with explosives or otherwise prepared for some kind of terror mission — or outlandish — the crew and passengers have been rescued but are being hidden pending the outcome of…some operation?

Such is our modern world. It can unexpectedly delighting us — but it’s also capable of confronting us with this kind of entirely unforeseen Sophie’s choice.

Smash it, and smash it again: This simple game-play mechanism underpins the addictively fun Smash Hit

March 18, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 18, 2014

This past weekend, I found myself in need of another mindless distraction. I found Smash Hit at the top of the free software list in the Apps Store.

The name winkingly refers not just to the app’s current No. 1 status but to its key game-play mechanism: The player automatically advances through a geometrical landscape, lobbing chrome balls to destroy obstacles and acquire resources. The balls, which are dead ringers for pinballs, shatter triangular power-up crystals as well as a variety of glass bars and panes.

Hit one of the triangular crystals and you’ll be rewarded with three additional balls. Smash 10 consecutive triangular crystals without letting one pass by unmolested and you’ll be able to fire two balls at once. Smashing 10 more crystals without a miss empowers the player to shoot three balls simultaneously; extend the streak and your ammunition will grow more potent, to a point.

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Pre-Internet fandom: A short, wretched memoir

March 14, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 14, 2014

The other day, in a follow-up to a post about my limited experience with football practices, I shared three vignettes that were vaguely related to those visit to practice. Today, another vaguely related follow-up to the follow-up!

Let’s return to that Sept. 10, 1994, game pitting Stanford football at Northwestern.

I have one particular memory from that game, or rather from just before the game. My friend Mark and I sat in the Stanford fan section, and I noticed some guys handing out sheets of paper. I went over to pick one up and was handed what I believe was the debut edition of The Bootleg, a Stanford sports fan publication that is now part of the Scout network of sports websites.

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Postscript: Two meetings, three vignettes

March 13, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 13, 2014

On Sunday, I posted about two encounters I had at Stanford football practices. Today, I offer three codas to those two meetings.

Vignette the First: Stanford hosted Northwestern in 1992, beating the Wildcats of Evanston, Ill., by a 35-24 score. The Cardinal finished that season with a 10-3 record, including a dominating 24-3 victory over Penn State. (This was the first and last time that Joe Paterno, the now-disgraced dean of East Coast football, coached against Bill Walsh, the still-revered figure credited with popularizing what some call the West Coast offense.)

But 1992 was the last time Walsh would post a winning record. The team devolved to a very disappointing 4-7 record; that included a loss in the Big Game against traditional rival cal (lowercase c intentional).

Still, Stanford started the 1994 season with high hopes. The team opened in Illinois on Sept. 10 with a game at Northwestern. This turned out to be a wild and woolly affair. It ended in crushing disappointment — not with a Stanford loss, but in a 41-41 tie. The Cardinal was in position to win, but kicker Eric Abrams (whom I’d tried to interview mid-practice a few years ago) badly missed on a fairly close 23-yard field goal try with three seconds to play.

Abrams, who is left-footed, told reporters that he was bothered by the ball being placed on the left hashmark; he would have preferred to kick from the right. “Before I kicked the ball I knew there was a problem. I didn’t do a good job of adjusting,” Abrams said.

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Practice imperfect: Two anecdotes

March 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 9, 2014

Despite my becoming a passionate football fan in college, and my having a few stints, strictly part-time, as a sports reporter, I’ve attended football practices only on rare occasions.

My knowledge of the sport is strictly that of the layman — someone who has never played the game or studied it seriously. Practice drills likely wouldn’t provide me with much insight into the quality of a football team, its members or its plays.

I distinctly remember attending two Stanford football practices, however, in that long-ago time when I was a student and would-be sports reporter.

What I believe was the second such occasion was on a cloudy, damp autumn or fall afternoon, presumably definitely in 1992, when I somehow had reason to interview record-setting Cardinal kicker Eric Abrams for a student radio or newspaper story that is now long forgotten. (Update: It was definitely 1992, when Abrams was a freshman.)

There’s no question why this episode sticks in my mind: Because I made a gaffe and embarrassed myself.

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ProPublica and NPR find massive government failures in identifying missing soldiers

March 7, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 7, 2014

On Thursday, the web-based journalism organization ProPublica and National Public Radio began publishing a joint investigation into Pentagon efforts to identify and repatriate the remains of missing American soldiers.

The first story focused on Arthur “Bud” Kelder. After the U.S. Army private died at a prison camp in the Philippines in November 1942, the Japanese threw his body into a mass grave along with those of 13 other men. To date, only 10 of the corpses from grave No. 717 have been officially identified — one by his identification tags, three by their dental records.

A few years ago, Kelder’s family found proof that their late relative had gold dental inlays. Records for the unnamed men from grave 717 show that only one of the bodies had gold inlays. Yet military officials have refused to disinter the relevant remains for DNA tests, even though this appears to be a logical and obvious next step in attempting to identify the body.

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On Wisconsin: Newly revealed e-mails, and reminders of old missteps, cast Gov. Scott Walker in an unflattering light

March 6, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 6, 2014

When thousands of e-mails sent by Scott Walker’s staff were released last month, I doubted that they’d have much of an impact on the Wisconsin governor who has aspirations of being elected president on the Republican ticket.

The messages had previously been secret because aides to Walker, who was then the elected leader of Milwaukee County, had set up a private network in the county executive’s office. This arrangement, which made it easier for staffers to communicate about the gubernatorial campaign, was part of an unsuccessful attempt to evade laws barring employees from electioneering when they’re supposed to be working on behalf of the public.

Six Walker associates have been found guilty of wrongdoing, three of them top Walker aides. But a lengthy investigation, now closed, hasn’t resulted in any charges against Walker. Employing staff members, even highly placed ones, who engage in politics on the taxpayer’s dime just doesn’t seem likely to tarnish Walker for a substantial number of voters.

Still, there has been a stream of unflattering revelations since the e-mails were released. And while these revelations have been more about Walker’s employees than the politician himself, they’re certainly not helping the official’s image.

So over time, I’ve changed my mind; I now think that Salon’s Joan Walsh is probably right when she argues that Walker may now be too tarnished to run for president successfully. Ironically, it was a recent Walsh piece that was only tangentially related to the formerly secret e-mails that made me think that Walker’s presidential aspirations are toast.

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From spring to winter and back again: Wild weather swings over the last few months

March 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 2, 2014

Today, residents of North Carolina’s Piedmont enjoyed a beautiful spring day. The skies were clear, the sun was out and the mercury rose into the high 60s.

Today is Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Tomorrow, the high will be in the mid-50s. (These temperatures are all Fahrenheit, natch.) It’s going to be about 56 degrees around midnight. The temperature’s expected to drop below 40 degrees before 10 a.m. By 1 p.m. on Monday, March 3, 2014, the forecast for Durham, N.C., calls for 29 degrees with a 100 percent chance of precipitation — most likely sleet.

The sleet (traces of rain and snow may also come) should taper off by sunset, around 6:12 p.m. The temperature, however, will keep on declining. It could bottom out at around 15 degrees by the time Monday rolls into Tuesday.

But this isn’t the first time this has happened in recent months. In fact, this will be at least the third time since early December that North Carolina has experienced a wild change in temperatures and weather conditions.

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An incomplete interview: The Wichita Business Journal chats with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch

March 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 2, 2014

The Wichita Business Journal is launching a new design this week. To serve as the linchpin for the remodeled publication, the editors snagged an interview with an important local businessman: Charles Koch.

Koch and his brother, David, control Koch Industries, which is estimated to have $115 billion in annual revenues. Because the business is privately held, it’s ineligible for the Fortune 500; if it qualified, it would rank 17th, according to CNN. The conglomerate is reportedly the second-largest private company in America.

More to the point, the Koch brothers have become heavy hitters in the political world. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that their company and its affiliates have given $2.6 million in the current election cycle, which ranks 11 out of all donors. Last year, the business spent $10.3 million on lobbying, making Koch Industries 31st on the overall list.

But that, to borrow the cliché, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Koch brothers helped fund the Tea Party — and so much more…

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