Archive for October, 2014

A few more words about voting (plus a helpful tool!)

October 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 29, 2014

Election day is coming. If you’re registered to vote — and if you’re an eligible American, then you should be — then this is one of the most important times of the year.

In fact, the midterm election is one of the most important days of the four-year period bridging presidential elections. Control of the United States Senate, and therefore the legislative branch of our government, may pass from Democratic to Republican hands in this election. If that happens, Republicans’ ability to prevent President Barack Hussein Obama from enacting policy and appointing officials will be enhanced.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself whether or not it’s advantageous to America for Republican officials to gain more leverage in their dealings with the president.

I wrote earlier today about my experience participating in early voting at the Durham County elections office in North Carolina. I was prompted to do so when I saw that WordPress (which hosts this and countless other blogs) is participating in an initiative called the Voting Information Project.

To that end, you can use the VIP voter information tool that I’ve embedded above to learn about where you can vote, what races are on your ballot and other useful facts.

Have a happy and informed 2014 midterm election, America!

Noontime at the Saturday polls: Notes and impressions from my early-voting excursion

October 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 29, 2014

Voting turned out to be a strangely festive experience this year.

I went to the Durham County Board of Elections around noon on Saturday, Oct. 25. Sometime this year, the board relocated from a single-story commercial office complex off of West Corporation Street to a building known as the Judicial Annex, which is downtown on Roxboro Street just north of Main.

(I think that happened this year. I remember stopping at the old offices to cast a ballot during early voting for the May primary immediately before departing on a trip to New York. Anyway…)

I’d never been in the Judicial Annex before, so the whole scene was a bit of a surprise. I parked in what had been (and may again become?) a pay lot located west of the annex and north of a building that locals used to call the new courthouse.

I don’t know how people refer to the so-called new courthouse now; sometime last year (again, I think), the new courthouse was replaced by an even newer, much larger and much more modern courthouse. In fact, I don’t even know what is currently being done with the building that I used to refer to as, simply, the county courthouse. (According my ever-so-correct parlance, the structure that many locals called the old courthouse was simply the “county administration building,” because it now houses the county manager’s office and several other Durham County employees.)

At any rate, I parked my car in the nearly full lot and walked east, stepping across the curb that delineates the parking lot from the pavement that surrounds the annex. This latter space was well populated with campaigners. There were people handing out flyers and (I think) stickers and buttons. There were people wearing matching T-shirts that variously seemed to be declaring support for different candidates and get-out-the-vote initiatives.

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Are you feeling nostalgic for cheap gas? Maybe you shouldn’t…

October 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 28, 2014

On Sunday night, I was driving around Durham, North Carolina, when I noticed that a nearby gas station was selling unleaded for $2.99 a gallon. I did a quick search on Gas Guru, an iPhone app, and found a bunch of local stations that were offering the same price. It’s the lowest I’ve seen in quite a while.

A web search on Monday morning led me to this chart at a website called, which showed that gas prices nationally have been trending downward since late June. It’s difficult to discern precise numbers and dates on the graph, but the average U.S. price is a little less than than $3.09 per gallon right now.

The last time gas was so cheap was around the start of 2011, when the price was headed up; in May 2011, the price spiked at above $3.85/gallon. That’s the second-highest price for gas in the past decade.

The peak price was near $4.10 in June 2008. But soon after that, the price plunged. About six months after gas reached its highest level over the previous decade, it hit its lowest level in the same period. On Nov. 27, 2008, gas cost just $1.59.

A lot of conservatives seem to have forgotten this, but 2008 — the final year of the George W. Bush presidency — marked the beginning phase of the great recession, which lasted until June 2009. (Technically, the recession began in December 2007.)

In case you’ve forgotten about the recession — from which the U.S. economy continues to recover in rather sluggish fashion — let’s review.

After months of being at or below 4.7 percent, the unemployment rate rose to 5.0 percent in December 2007. It hit 6.1 percent in August 2008 and 7.3 percent in December 2008. Four months after that, it was 9.0 percent. In October 2009, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.0 percent.

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On point: A trivial anecdote about not getting impaled by sharp objects

October 27, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 27, 2014

One recent evening, I was playing — and playing well — in a World Tavern Poker tournament in a billiards and sports bar called Buck’s. This establishment is located in southwest Raleigh, except maybe, as it turns out, it’s actually just across the border in Cary, North Carolina. When I disclosed my confusion about this point to a friend, she suggested that we just think of Buck’s as being in a place she called Careigh.

Done and done.

Anyway, it was break time for the early tournament at Buck’s. In North Carolina, break takes place after the first four blind levels: 100-200, 200-400, 300-600 and 500-1,000.

Break lasts a few minutes — five or so in a small tournament with a director who is on top of things, 15 or 20 in a game with a lot of players and/or a game with a tournament director who enjoys chatting or stepping outside for a cigarette.

There’s also vital business to be conducted during the break, mainly by the director and his or her assistants. First, players count and stack their low-denomination chips — reds and greens, which respectively are designated as having 100 and 500 nominal units of value. Then the director and the aides travel from table to table, distributing the equivalent amount of high-denomination chips — blacks and grays, respectively worth 1,000 and 5,000 units.

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Refresher seminar at the literacy center — or, The blog post that ends with a joke (or two)

October 24, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 24, 2014

Around the beginning of 2012, I saw in a flyer in a Durham, N.C., coffee shop. The shop was almost certainly Bean Traders, the Ninth Street establishment that has since been renamed Market Street.

That’s not important — what’s important is that the flyer was for the Durham Literacy Center, which was seeking volunteers to work as adult literacy tutors. I signed up for an orientation session, which I followed with a two-day training session with about a dozen other newbie tutors at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.

I was initially matched with a student who was an ex-con. He lived somewhere in northern Durham County, and his trip to the center’s adult literacy classrooms — which at the time were situated in a church auxiliary building — required an hour or more of bus travel.

At our second meeting, I gave my student five dollars. That was the last I saw of him; apparently, he got a job that prevented him from taking lessons.

Soon after that, the center matched me with another man — a Durham native, then in his late 40s, whom I’ll call T. We’ve worked together ever since March 2012, with some interruptions for holidays, travel and other things that happen.

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If only, if only, if only: A daisy chain of recent recreational mistakes

October 23, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 23, 2014

On a recent night at a no-jacket-required sports bar in Cary, N.C., during a World Tavern Poker tournament, the flop came out ace-ace-six.

I was sitting two spots to the right of the dealer. The dealer and the person between us had folded, meaning that I was the last player to act in the hand.

The flop was checked around to me. I had pocket nines, so the board had given me two pairs. That hand, of course, would be useless if one of the other players held an ace.

Did he or she? I decided to test the waters by betting 2,600 in chips.

The other players reacted: Fold, fold, fold…

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Where does the Stanford football team go from here?

October 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct.22, 2014

There’s no doubt about it: Saturday’s 26-10 loss at Arizona State was a demoralizing defeat for Stanford football. The team hadn’t lost a game by more than four points since a 53-30 blowout home loss to the Oregon Ducks on Nov. 12, 2011.

That matchup was a battle of top 10 teams — Oregon was ranked third, and Stanford, which was led by all-world quarterback Andrew Luck, was sixth. How far the Farm gridders have fallen since then. Entering the ASU game, Stanford was ranked 25th. After the loss in the desert, voters rightly dropped the Cardinal (now 4-3 overall, 2-2 in conference) out of the Top 25.

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Cardinal chronicle: ASU clobbers Stanford, 26-10, in demoralizing desert defeat

October 21, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 21, 2014

Let’s not mince words. The Stanford team’s 26-10 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night was a full-fledged disaster. Any sense of panic that Cardinal fans had after the demoralizing loss at Notre Dame is now running rampant.

There was, of course, a game sandwiched between those road losses — a 34-17 home victory over Washington State. But the pass-oriented Cougars boast one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12 conference, and everyone knew that Arizona State would pose a much stiffer test.

The game seemed to be going wrong from Stanford’s very first possession. Quarterback Kevin Hogan sandwiched two incomplete passes around a run for no gain by Remound Wright. The Cardinal punted without gaining a first down for the first of what would turn out to be four times.

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Ambushed by the past: A blog post about the glimpse of television that prompted my previous two blog posts

October 19, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 19, 2014

Sometimes, current events catch you by surprise. On Tuesday night, a part of my past popped up unexpectedly.

In between World Tavern Poker tournaments at the Big Easy, a restaurant in Cary, N.C., I sat in a high chair at the island that separates the bar area from the dining area. The Kansas City Royals were hosting Baltimore in what would turn out to be the fourth and final game of the American League Championship Series, and I wanted to keep an eye on the action.

But images on another screen, showing an old Major League Baseball event, caught my attention. The video was fuzzy, and the sound was off, and my view of the screen was obscured, but somehow, I recognized the event after seeing just a second or two of footage.

CNN was showing a documentary about the event that’s known to the world as the San Francisco earthquake. I murmured “1989 World Series” (or words to that effect) to myself. Suddenly, scattered memories of my experiences of the Loma Prieta temblor began flashing through my mind.

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The day after: Two memories of Oct. 18, 1989

October 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 17, 2014

I have two distinct memories — one good, one bad — of the events of Oct. 18, 1989.

That was the day after the infamous Loma Prieta temblor. Classes were canceled that day as the university — indeed, as everyone and everything in the San Francisco Bay Area — assessed the damage from the prior day’s event, which is better known to the rest of the universe as the San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake was a profoundly startling event; one never expects stable elements such as building floors and walls, let alone the ground itself, to gyrate wildly. Relatively few people were killed in the incident, but still the disaster made me contemplate mortality.

A big part of college, of course, is finding one’s identity. And just a few weeks in, it had started to become apparent to me that my true identity was not that of the star student, able to put his nose to the books, concentrate on the text and emerge a few hours later with a strong understanding — let alone mastery — of the material.

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Journey into the past: Earthquake!!!

October 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 15, 2014

One of the most interesting days of my life occurred when I was a college freshman. I had no inkling of what was about to happen.

This was a long time ago, so there’s plenty I don’t remember about this day. But as I recall, I was lounging in my dorm room feeling sleepy. Dinner time was coming soon. My roommate, Robert was there.

Then the building started to vibrate.

It was 5:04 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989. Stanford University, and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, was about to get rocked.

Robert and I both made our way to the doorway. We stood there, trying to keep our balance, fending off the door as it swung back and forth.

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The bomb at the far end of the galaxy: Why is ‘Supernova’ so bad, and why can’t I stop liking it?

October 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 9, 2014

Oh, Supernova. You could have been so, so good. Instead, you were so completely awful.

Supernova, the 2000 science fiction/horror movie, is a famously bad film. Its credited director is Thomas Lee, the pseudonym chosen to replace Alan Smithee after the cover of that moniker was blown by 1997’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. According to the Internet Movie Database, the actual main director of Supernova was Walter Hill, the writer-director of 48 Hrs. and a producer of Aliens and several lesser science-fiction movies. IMDB also says that Supernova had uncredited directorial and/or editing contributions from cinema immortal Francis Ford Coppola (yes, the man who filmed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now!) and B-movie director Jack Sholder (The Hidden, which I actually remember as being quite good).

(Spoilers ahead.)

The movie’s setup is fairly straightforward. As ambulance vessel Nightingale patrols remote areas of deep space, its crew slowly adjusts to its newest member — pilot Nick Vanzant (James Spader), a former military man who recently finished rehabilitation for his addiction to a futuristic drug named hazen. The crew finds Vanzant to be cool and distant; he finds them to be gruff and unorthodox.

Captain A.J. Marley (Robert Forster) is working on his doctorate in anthropology, a pursuit that requires him to watch (and comment disparagingly about) violent 20th century cartoons. Benj Sotomejor (Wilson Cruz), who is either the ship’s navigator or its information technology guy — it’s never made clear — has reprogrammed and is becoming emotionally intimate with the Nightingale’s computer, Sweetie (voiced by Vanessa Marshall). Paramedics Danika Lund (Robin Tunney) and Yerzy Penalosa (Lou Diamond Phillips) are rutting like rabbits and considering whether to have a child together. (He’s gung-ho; she’s reluctant.) Dr. Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett), who had a hurtful relationship years ago with a hazen addict, seems to spend most of her time glowering and lecturing Vanzant.

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‘Church Signs Across America’ delivers just what its title promises

October 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 8, 2014

A number of summers ago, retirees Steve and Pam Paulson were driving around when they hit on an idea for what would become their first book: A volume of photographs of churches and their signs, which variously bear reverent and witty messages.

I picked up Church Signs Across America a few years ago on the strength of its cover photograph: A picture of the sign outside a Lutheran church that reads, “Free trip to heaven — details inside.” (This is a message from Ascension Lutheran Church, the sign from which appears on the cover and title page, although the church’s location does not seem to be stated anywhere in the book.)

This 2006 book loitered around my house for many many months, but I didn’t get around to flipping through it until I was seized by an impulse to declutter last week. I found it to be surprisingly tepid.

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Stanford setback: Golden domers crush Cardinal hopes in the Indiana rain

October 7, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 7, 2014

It’s hard to lose in more agonizing fashion than the Stanford football team did on Saturday.

The Cardinal traveled to South Bend, Ind., with a great deal at stake. If Stanford’s team was to make the inaugural college football playoffs, it would essentially need to win out its schedule. The squad also had a chance to avenge the 20-13 overtime loss that it suffered in its last trip to Notre Dame, in 2012 — a controversial affair in which Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor appeared to score what would have been the game-tying touchdown on a play that was whistled dead by the officials.

Stanford’s 2014 edition has had a bifurcated identity. The defense is the Cardinal’s Dr. Jekyll: Entering the weekend, it led the nation in scoring defense (6.5 points per game), total defense (198 yards per game) and passing defense (74 ypg). The team had permitted just four plays of 20 yards or longer this season, second fewest in the land.

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Injured again! My random encounter with a vine

October 6, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 6, 2014

I was moping around the house Thursday afternoon when I decided to clean out my ears.

As is so often the case, this had the opposite effect from what I’d intended: The wax was compacted in my right ear, thereby occluding my hearing. I’ve previously described what this is like:

[S]ounds are fuzzier and softer and just harder to make out… [I]t leaves me with the sensation of being trapped in my own head. It also makes me feel slightly dizzy and fatigued.

I’ve been walking around like this for a few days now. There has, however, been a twist: On Friday, without my doing anything, my left ear canal closed up.

My right ear isn’t great, but it’s better than my left ear now. Except sometimes when they switch. It’s all very confusing.

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Dream diary: The hallway to nowhere

October 5, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 5, 2014

This morning, I dreamed that my parent, my sibling and I were making our way south through an urban environment that resembled, but surely was not, Manhattan. We were trying to escape from someone, possibly a family member. The situation changed, I think, at some point in the dream, so that we were later trying to find or reconnect with someone — possibly the same person whom we had earlier been trying to evade.

To this end, we stopped in a building that reminded me of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. We wanted to contact the authorities and pass on some kind of message — possibly including information about how the other person could find us — to be broadcast or passed along to that missing individual.

We were walking through the building, with myself in the lead. We passed through a door and found ourselves in a downward-sloping corridor, rather like a gangway leading to an airplane. There was a right angle in the corridor, and then the passage came to a doorway.

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The parking lot and the stealth engine

October 1, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 1, 2014

There’s a shopping center in Durham called the Bull City Market; it’s bounded on the south by West Main Street and on the east by Broad Street, both of which are major roads. The shopping center’s anchor tenant is Whole Foods, which occupies most of the building. The parking lot is nearly always crowded and difficult to negotiate in a car, so when I visit, I usually park on Iredell Street on the center’s back side.

I did that on Monday afternoon, leaving my car beside St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church and ambling south on Iredell on my way to Mad Hatter Bakeshop and Cafe. I hadn’t walked that way in a while, so my eyes were drawn to the fusion Asian restaurant as I strolled; it didn’t seem busy, and I wondered if it had closed.

As I drew abreast with the restaurant entrance, I noticed something out of place. A metal garbage can was sitting in a parking spot nearest the door, blocking any use of the space by vehicles. This seemed to have been a deliberate move made by someone in charge of the restaurant or the shopping center, although I wasn’t entirely sure why.

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