Archive for November, 2014

In the excellent thriller ‘Argo,’ ordinary people face extraordinary pressures in revolutionary Iran

November 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 30, 2014

Argo, the 2012 movie directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is an excellent thriller based on the real-life rescue of six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran in 1980.

The movie quickly sets the stage for its story by having a narrator describe key political events in the history of 20th-century Iran. Essentially: In 1953, soon after Iran’s secular, democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized Western-owned oil interests, the United States helped stage a coup and installed a friendly dictator. The new shah was Reza Pahlavi, whose modernization initiatives were undermined by his hoarding national wealth and his ordering or allowing the secret police to brutally oppress political enemies. In 1979, militant Islamic revolutionaries took control of Iran; the grievously ill shah traveled to America so he could simultaneously save himself from hanging and get treatment for his cancer.

This narration — delivered by Sheila Vand, who has a small but crucial role as a housekeeper named Sahar — brings us to Nov. 4, 1979. A crowd of angry Iranians have massed outside the gates of the U.S. embassy, and Americans trapped on the grounds slowly realize that local officials have no intention of dispersing the mob. Protesters breach first the compound walls and then the actual buildings, detaining more than 60 diplomats and other employees.

But six employees in what appears to be the visa branch evade captivity by slipping out a side exit. Unbeknownst to the Iranians, the sextet find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. Because of the revolutionaries’ hostility toward the secular West, and especially all things American, they’re essentially trapped inside the residence.

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‘Interstellar,’ a space-time odyssey: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan project human destiny through the prism of one man’s journey

November 29, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 29, 2014

Interstellar, the new science fiction drama from director Christopher Nolan, is a domestic drama that takes place across the reaches of space, time and physics.

The ostensible hero of the movie is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a widower who farms an increasingly desolate homestead in what may be rural Texas. The ostensible heroine is Brand (Anne Hathaway), a scientist whose drive to salvage humanity is sometimes undermined by her usually tightly controlled sentimentality. I don’t think the film ever reveals Cooper’s first name; Brand’s given name is Amelia, but it’s seldom used, a very deliberate omission that marks the character’s emotional coolness, underscoring the distance — real or figurative — between her and the people for whom she cares, and who care for her.

If the movie, which the English director co-wrote with his younger brother, Jonathan Nolan, ever specified the time in which it takes place, I missed it. The story seemed to me to begin a generation or two after our present time. In this dystopian future, climate change has evidently occurred, bringing with it massive dust storms and global crop failures. The ensuing famine and population collapse bring a singular focus on feeding and expanding the human population at the expense of nearly everything else.

Cooper is a relic in this world. Currently a farmer, he once had an abortive career as an astronaut. He’s bitter because the advanced technology that is now all but officially eschewed includes magnetic resonance imagers, which if available might have detected the cancer that killed his wife. He’s also angry because his children — Tom, who’s about 16, and Murph, 10 — are being taught almost exclusively about agriculture.

How narrow-minded is the emphasis on survival? It’s suggested, rather improbably, that the world’s military forces have disbanded. Also, we’re told that federally approved textbooks describe the 20th-century moon landings as a clever hoax that the U.S. government perpetrated to goad the Soviet Union into wasting enormous amounts of resources on space exploration.

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Law vs. justice: A grand jury declines to indict a police officer in racially charged Ferguson, Mo., shooting

November 26, 2014

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

Legally speaking, the Missouri grand jury that declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown may have made the right decision.

But the fact is that another man — another white man — another white man with a license to carry a deadly weapon — won’t face charges for the killing of another black man — another unarmed young black man. Morally speaking, this episode seems to reinforce an unwritten, unofficial American hierarchy that values white lives over black lives.

This is the same power dynamic that we’ve seen play out over the past several days — in fact, over a number of decades — in the case of beloved comedian Bill Cosby, a talented, successful entertainer who appears to have drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women dating back to at least 1965. In Cosby’s case, a number of his alleged assaults were white, while he is black.

But make no mistake. The entertainer’s ability to escape most consequences of his apparent misdeeds is an extension of the same societal structure from which Wilson has benefited, and George Zimmerman before him, and Woody Allen before him, and Bill Clinton before him, and countless others before them. This structure habitually favors men over women, the rich over the poor and the powerful over the powerless — even if its beneficiaries occasionally sport darker skin, as in the case of Cosby.

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Five victories and still going strong: Stanford keeps rivalry streak intact with 38-17 triumph over Cal in the 117th Big Game

November 24, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 24, 2014

Big Game’s luster has dwindled somewhat in recent years. Stanford walloped Cal in their 2013 meeting, 63-13; the 50-point thrashing was the largest point differential in Big Game history. It was the Cardinal’s fourth consecutive Big Game triumph; only one of those contests, Stanford’s 31-28 win in 2011, was closer than 18 points. In each of those four years, the Cardinal went on to enjoy 11 or 12 total victories.

If the 2014 matchup wasn’t quite as glamorous as it has been in past year, there were circumstances that added an element of intrigue to Saturday’s contest. The teams entered the 117th Big Game on much more even footing than of late; both sported 5-5 overall records.

But in most other ways, the teams were mirror images of one another. A 5-5 win-loss tally represented a come-up for Cal, which won only a single game in 2013; for Stanford, which finished last year 11-3 with a Rose Bowl berth, that record was a definite let-down. Cal has a prolific offense and a terrible defense; going into Saturday, Stanford’s scoring defense was ranked seventh nationally (16.5 points per game), but its offense was relatively anemic.

On Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, Stanford took a 17-point lead into the locker room at halftime — yet the game could easily have gone differently.

The visitors in white jumped out to a 10-0 lead thanks to a short Remound Wright touchdown run and Jordan Williamson’s 24-yard field goal. But on its second possession, Cal drove the length of the field and seemed poised to score.

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Is the conservative #BENGHAZI!!! scandal narrative ill-served by the facts of the Benghazi attacks? A brief investigation

November 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 22, 2014

This afternoon, I conducted a quick review of four websites — two of them mainstream news organizations, two of them avowedly conservative news organizations — and their coverage of the latest news relating to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks against American outposts in Benghazi, Libya.

Let’s start with the mainstream coverage.

At The Washington Post, a story titled “House panel finds no intelligence failure in Benghazi attacks” was featured in prominent real estate — the top-left corner of the home page. Greg Miller’s article, posted Friday, Nov. 21, at 8:53 p.m., begins:

An investigation by the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee has concluded that the CIA and U.S. military responded appropriately to the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, dismissing allegations that the Obama administration blocked rescue attempts during the assault or sought to mislead the public afterward.

After a two-year probe that involved the review of thousands of pages of classified documents, the panel determined that the attack could not be blamed on an intelligence failure, and that CIA security operatives “ably and bravely assisted” State Department officials who were overwhelmed at a nearby but separate diplomatic compound.

The committee also found “no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support,” rejecting claims that have fed persistent conspiracy theories that the U.S. military was prevented from rescuing U.S. personnel from a night-time assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

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The sky observed while driving: Notes from a November afternoon and twilight on the road

November 19, 2014

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

On Tuesday, I drove down from the New York metropolitan area to Durham, North Carolina. A little before 4 p.m., while I was motoring south on Interstate 95 in central Virginia, I noticed that a cloud was creating a rainbow.

The sky was mostly clear, but one cloud hung relatively low in front of me. The edges to my right — the trailing edges, I presume — were wispy, and these tendrils of vapor were refracting light from the late-afternoon sun. Small patches of red, yellow and blue faintly shimmered. It was a beautiful and strange sight to behold.

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Back online: Minor laptop repairs completed!

November 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 17, 2014

My computer’s back!

I purchased my 13-inch MacBook Pro in August 2009, and it’s been through a lot. It’s on its second optical drive and its second hard drive. There’s a dent on the right side of the case from when I dropped the computer once. (Fortunately, it was cradled by a protective case, else the damage might have been catastrophic.) There’s also a subtle crease on the machine’s bottom that I hadn’t even noticed until a few days ago, although this mark was presumably sustained weeks or months ago.

So when my laptop started acting up on my recent Las Vegas trip, I naturally assumed that it would never run again.

But I wasn’t eager to pony up money for a replacement, and I certainly couldn’t lay out any dough without getting a diagnosis for my ailing computer. It seemed pretty clear, based on a comparison of the symptoms that I was seeing to what I’d experienced after a computer mishap a few summers previously, that my hard drive was shot. I believed repairs would cost $200 or more, which probably wasn’t worth it — but again, I had to see.

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Bad beat stories! Get your not-so-fresh bad beat stories!

November 14, 2014

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

Gather round the virtual campfire, kiddies! It’s time for Uncle Matthew to tell a few more bad beat stories from the poker table!

These stories are a little bit different, however. On Thursday, I flew out to Las Vegas to participate in Open 19, one of the twice-yearly national championship events staged by World Tavern Poker. That’s right: Your not-so-humble correspondent ponied up real money to play for, well real money.

So these were very different circumstances than the typical World Tavern Poker tournaments in which I usually participate. This wasn’t me playing some mostly familiar faces in a familiar local bar, with no money at risk and no potential rewards on the line other than the self-esteem and league points that come with a good showing. I paid for a plane flight and a hotel room, and I was paying tournament registration fees. I was sitting in an honest-to-goodness casino with professional dealers, and I was facing dozens of mostly unfamiliar faces from all over the nation.

Open 19’s first event was the “Early Strikers” tournament at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 7. I signed up with some reservations. On the one hand, my body was sore from traveling, and my head was a bit stuffy. On the other hand, I was in Las Vegas, and how else was I planning on spending my Friday night?

I won a modest pot or two early and felt comfortable with the proceedings. Then trouble struck.

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The blog post that should have been: My digital sob story

November 12, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 12, 2014

I woke up very early Sunday morning and, because I realized I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, went to the Starbucks in the hotel where I’m staying in Las Vegas. (The structure actually has three separate Starbucks branches — that I know of — that can be patronized without setting foot out of doors.)

After fruitlessly struggling for a while to connect with any of the nearby wireless networks, I gave up and decided to do something that I hadn’t tried since sometime in 2013: Draft a blog post on my computer.

An hour or so later, I had all but finished a post, but my computer was running out of power. I wandered over to a nearby hotel (again, without seeing the actual sky — although there were artificial ones) and settled down at a spot in the lobby where I could plug in my MacBook Pro, a 13-incher that I acquired in August 2009.

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In ‘Donald,’ Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott turn the tables on an architect of George W. Bush’s wars

November 8, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 8, 2014

Donald, a 2011 book co-written by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott, is one of the first novels centered on a key figure in the presidential administration of George W. Bush. (I know of one other — American Wife, the 2008 novel by Curtis Sittenfeld that fictionalizes the story of Laura Bush.) Donald, I would guess, is likely to be one of the strangest novels ever to be written that centers on a key figure in the Bush administration.

It’s not that this novel, which is told from the perspective of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is fantastical in execution; to the contrary, the story unspools in realistic fashion.

Instead, the odd thing here is the premise. One night, Rumsfeld is kidnapped from his Maryland home by covert operatives. He is detained and interrogated in a series of settings — first a residence that appears to be near his own house, then in a prison camp in Afghanistan or Iraq, and finally in various prison facilities located at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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