Archive for May, 2015

Revisiting Henderson, N.C. — another meandering travel memoir

May 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 29, 2015

Earlier this year, I wrote about the first time I ever noticed a small Piedmont city called Henderson, N.C. My early impressions were unfavorable: I was driving north along U.S. 1 Bypass, an unlovely stretch of road bordered by an immense Wal-Mart distribution facility and large churches. In January 2004, about four months after that trip, I ended up living and working in Henderson.

I transferred to a new job in Durham in March 2008; I actually moved to Durham a few months after that. And yet I pass through Henderson fairly frequently.

That’s because at least four or five times a year, I make the round-trip drive from Durham to my childhood (and young adulthood) haunts in the New York metropolitan area. I don’t travel on U.S. 1, but I do take Interstate 85.

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Losing with queens and to queens; with sixes and with kings — more free poker tales from the bad beat bureau

May 27, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 27, 2015

It’s the weekend. A two-table tournament has shrunk down to one table. I’m short stack.

The blinds are approaching. I’m first to act. I peek at my hand: Two queens. I push all in.

Everyone folds to the big blind. His name is Mateo; he needs to pay just a small amount in order to call my all-in shove. He debates. He does it.

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Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland’ asks viewers to rally behind an optimistic, simplistic utopian concept

May 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 25, 2015

Brad Bird’s entertaining new movie, Tomorrowland, pits optimism vs. cynicism. Guess which wins?

Tomorrowland is a Hollywood movie, so the answer shouldn’t surprise you much. More specifically, it’s a Disney Studios movie based on a Disney theme park area, so the answer really shouldn’t surprise you.

When Frank Marshall (Thomas Robinson) was a child, a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) spotted him at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. Athena handed Marshall a pin and told him to covertly follow her and her sourpuss adult associate, Nix (Hugh Laurie), into the It’s a Small World ride. He did so and was transported into a fantastic futuristic city…

…which the audience won’t get to revisit at length until the end of the movie. In the meantime, we’re introduced to Casey Newton, an optimistic present-day Florida teenager (Britt Robinson, playing about a decade younger than her 25 years). Her dad, Eddie Newton (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer who’s helping to dismantle launch pads. (Mom is out of the picture, although it’s never specified whether this is due to divorce, death or something else; her younger brother, Nate, is played by Pierce Gagnon, who has a chubby-cheeked visage that, confusingly, resembles Robinson’s.) Casey is a brilliant budding engineer in her own right who has hoped to travel to space since she was a very young child. She’s single-handedly determined to try to delay the demolition project until society gets its priorities straight.

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In ‘The Tiger,’ John Vaillant compellingly explores what happened when a natural predator turned on humans

May 23, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 23, 2015

In early December 1997, Vladimir Markov seemed to be anxious about something. Markov lived in Sobolonye, a village in Russia’s Far East, and he’d been roaming around the community’s outskirts. These movements weren’t unusual in and of themselves, but as he visited various friends, most noticed that he paced nervously, smoked endlessly, and refused offers of food and shelter despite the long winter nights and the piercing cold.

A few days later, Markov was found dead, the victim of a brutal tiger attack. When a team of inspectors from a Russian agency with the unlikely name of Inspection Tiger visited Markov’s cabin, little remained of Markov’s corpse — the enormous cat had made sure of that. This was somewhat unusual. But as John Vaillant documents in his thrillingly readable nonfiction book, The Tiger, other ominous signs were afoot.

In this early passage from the 2010 book, investigator Yuri Trush and his team learn that the method in which the tiger hunted Markov was quite extraordinary and disturbing:

[Markov’s] latrine, his beehives — everything that might have his scent on it — had been thoroughly explored and much of it destroyed. His washstand had been knocked off the cabin’s outer wall, and there was a swipe of tiger blood by the door. Tiger tracks were everywhere, circling the cabin, interrupted only by packed expressions in the snow where the animal stopped to wait and watch before circling the cabin yet again. In one spot, by the wellhead, the tiger had lain on a patch of snow long enough to partially thaw it out. When it finally moved on, a furry shadow of itself remained behind, frozen in place. The tiger had clearly been on the premises for a while, perhaps days — long enough to defecate twice, both times within a few feet of the cabin. It was as if the tiger had staked a claim to the premises and all they contained.

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The last and the least: ‘Star Trek: Nemesis’ closed out the ‘Next Generation’ films on an unsatisfying note

May 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 22, 2015

The 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis has an awful reputation. This, I think, is somewhat overblown — somewhat.

Nemesis is the film that broke the Star Trek franchise’s Rule of Even-Numbered Outings, which posits that every other movie is excellent. As it happens, I was never a big believer in that rule, not having particularly liked the eighth Trek movie, Star Trek: First Contact.

Nemesis is widely considered to be the worst Star Trek movie. Perhaps so, but isn’t that sentiment excessively flattering to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier?

Trek’s tenth cinematic outing is also widely believed to be the movie that killed the Star Trek franchise. While it’s true that the next Trek film wasn’t released for seven years, creating the property’s longest-ever absence from movie theaters since its 1979 debut, there are plenty of signs that Nemesis was always meant to put a wrap on The Next Generation movie series. One of them is a plot point in Nemesis itself.

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Coffee aficionado, merchant, outer space adventurer: The philosophical meanderings of Angelica Gorodischer’s ‘Trafalgar’

May 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 18, 2015

Trafalgar is an engaging anthology of stories about the adventures and misadventures of Trafalgar Medrano. This mischievous space-faring merchant hails from Rosario, a key Argentinian port on the Paraná River. (The city, which is real, is about 185 miles upriver from Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital.)

The book was written by Angélica Gorodischer, a longtime resident of Rosario who won a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 2011. Trafalgar was first published in 1979; an English translation by Amalia Gladhart appeared in 2013.

All of Trafalgar’s tales are literally that — stories told by the merchant. A few come to us secondhand — in one account, Medrano describes one journey to a group of men playing cards; in another, the narrator’s 84-year-old Aunt Josefina relates a story that Medrano told her the other day about a tragic love affair on a distant world. There’s also a monologue delivered to an unknown individual.

Most of the time, however, Medrano seems to be speaking to a woman in Rosario — typically, one presumes, the author herself, or at least someone who shares her profession. (The story told in the group setting, about a beautiful scientist who joins the mysterious frenzied dances of a primitive race on a remote world, appears to have been passed on to the author by one of those present, although it’s not clear whom.)

By framing her narrative this way, Gorodischer is exploring the experience of hearing stories.

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Driven: An anecdote (part 2)

May 15, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 15, 2015

Earlier, I wrote about starting to drive home from a restaurant in northwestern Raleigh. Having set the stage in that post, I now return to my mildly amusing anecdote!

There’s a relatively desolate stretch on U.S. 70 on the northeastern edge of  Raleigh-Durham International Airport where an array of two-lane overpasses hang over the road. I had a heavy foot on the accelerator as I topped the rise that leads to this section.

And then I lifted my foot from the gas.

There appeared to be a police car parked in the median. I was pretty sure that the speed limit on that part of the road is 55 miles per hour. When I topped the rise, I was going too fast.

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Driven: An anecdote (part 1)

May 15, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 15, 2015

Something funny happened Wednesday night on my way home from the poker game.

This is the 13th of 26 weeks in the current World Tavern Poker season. (Quick reminder: World Tavern Poker is free poker, with absolutely no buy-in or monetary outlay required to play; the business model depends on players voluntarily buying food and drink at the bars and restaurants that host games.) The midway point is when the circuit holds All-Star Tournaments. The winner of each venue’s All-Star Tournament, which is actually a pair of tournaments, gets entry into a national World Tavern Poker event along with a commemorative victory medallion.

I didn’t do particularly well in Wednesday night’s first tournament, finishing 18th out of 44 participants. After some early struggles in the second tournament, my hands started hitting, and my stack grew. At the end, I was heads-up against a young woman whom I’ll call M. (Heads-up refers to when two and only players remain; it can refer to a single hand or to the conclusion to a tournament, as in this case.) Lately, I’ve had a lot of difficulty winning heads-up matches, and that was the case this time: M. won the game, leaving me in second place with a respectable haul of more than 10,000 points.

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The pleasant but punchless ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ continued the march of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ movie mediocrity

May 14, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 14, 2015

Roughly midway into the 1998 movie Star Trek: Insurrection, Jean-Luc Picard is faced with a moral dilemma. The captain of the good ship Enterprise has discovered that Starfleet Admiral Matthew Dougherty is conspiring with the Son’a, a sinister alien race, to secretly relocate the Ba’ku, the 600 peaceful agrarian residents of an isolated and idyllic world. Dougherty and the Son’a leader, Ru’afo, want to exploit a unique natural resource — the radiation emitted by the planet’s rings, which reverses the decrepitude of aging. Unfortunately for the Ba’ku, the only way to collect this radiation in industrial quantities involves a process that will render the world’s surface uninhabitable.

Picard has been ordered to depart the area and allow the Son’a to continue the Ba’ku relocation, which Dougherty claims has authorization from top United Federation of Planets officials. But the captain considers the forced relocation to be morally abhorrent — a violation of core principles that he, the Federation and Starfleet have spent years struggling to uphold. In a somber moment, he stands alone in his quarters and begins pulling his rank insignia from his collar…

In other hands, this might have been a dramatic scene. Here, however, it seems preordained — just another script point. Insurrection was written by 1990s Trek television series producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller and directed by Jonathan Frakes, who plays William Riker, the first officer of the Enterprise. And, rather like Generations, which was the first movie featuring Picard, Riker and the rest of the crew of the 24th-century Enterprise, I think that Insurrection would have worked better had it been released and displayed on small screens rather than silver ones.

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A lovely afternoon in Raleigh

May 12, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 12, 2015

Turnabout is fair play. And in this case, fun play, too!

Sometimes, when I drive north to visit my beloved Parental Unit, I’ll do things the right way: I’ll email my friends several days or a week ahead of time to let them know that I’ll be in town.

All too often, however, I’ll inform my friends of my impending arrival in belated fashion. I’ll send a message a day ahead of when I’m coming…or after I’ve started the nineish-hour-long drive…or, sometimes, after I’ve actually arrived.

Something not unlike that happened last week, except that this time, I wasn’t the traveler.

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Not necessarily ready for Hillary: Thoughts on Mrs. Clinton’s controversies, past and present

May 9, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 9, 2015

Let’s acknowledge Hillary Clinton’s historic accomplishments up front. She was the the most politically engaged First Spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first serious female presidential candidate of either major American political party. And she was the third woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state.

There are reasons to admire to Hillary Clinton. (Henceforth Clinton, in this post; I’ll use “Bill” to refer to the former president.) If one doesn’t think much of her tenure as First Lady, or of her work as secretary of state, even her enemies must at least grudgingly admit that her 2008 presidential candidacy was a historic milestone for these United States.

But it’s equally true — perhaps more true — that there are reasons to think that Clinton may not be an ideal president or presidential candidate. A number of those have been on display recently.

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Not a perfect 10, but not bad, either: Initial hands-on impressions of Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite

May 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 7, 2015

Earlier this week, I thought aloud about buying a new Apple laptop computer. A lot of the comparisons I made were with my current machine, a 13-inch MacBook Pro that I purchased as a new model in August 2009.

Now, I’m going to replace this computer at one point or another. It’s too old, it’s no longer particularly powerful and it’s too prone to failure.

But I’m actually glad that I didn’t replace my MacBook in April, when it needed a new hard drive — and not just because I’m still not sure what machine I’d want to purchase.

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Comparing Apple laptops, part 2

May 6, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 6, 2015

Author’s note: In my previous post, I considered the pros and cons of three different Apple laptop computer models: the MacBook (no modifiers), the MacBook Pro (full stop) and the MacBook Pro with high-resolution Retina display — or as I like to call them, the MB, MBP/fs and the MBP/r. Today, I consider Apple’s other laptop, the MacBook Air. MEM 

Like the MBP/r, the MBA comes in two sizes. I feel that the 11-inch MacBook Air is a bit too small for my taste, so that leaves the 13-incher.

The 13-inch Air has a 1,440 by 900 pixel screen. Apple doesn’t call it a Retina display, but I thought it was a bit sharper than the screen on my 2009 MacBook Pro when I examined a model on a recent visit to an Apple Store. The onboard memory starts at 4 GB, which is what I have now; the battery is rated for up to 12 hours between charges, which is far, far better than my current computer’s endurance. The Air has two USB 3 ports, which would be faster than the older USB 2 ports my current model has, and a Thunderbolt port, which my 2009 model lacks. On all of these points except memory, the Air is ahead of what I now have.

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Laptops, laptops in the store. Which one is the best replacement for my laptop from before?

May 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 5, 2015

Last month, I paid about $150 last month to replace my laptop computer’s hard drive. As I wrote the other day, repairing the machine was cheaper than replacing it, which would almost certainly have cost upwards of $1,000, factoring in the kind of computer I’d like as well as the cost of taxes and a warranty. (I’m not sure it’s worth purchasing coverage for a desktop computer, but I definitely recommend it for any laptop that’s going to be traveling farther than the distance from your couch to your desk.)

The case for repair vs. replace wasn’t quite as clear-cut as that, however. My 13-inch MacBook Pro is relatively old, in computer terms. I got it in August 2009; while it was pretty much a top-of-the-line computer at the time, that’s no longer the case. Any new machine will almost certainly be both faster and less prone to breaking down (at least in the short term).

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Whimsy and seriousness: Connecting the threads, comparing World War II vs. the Los Angeles riots

May 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 2, 2015

Since I can’t stop, won’t stop making connections between different things

and since I want to keep my weekly posting tallies as high as is reasonably possible…

I just wanted to point out that one of the subjects of Friday’s post, the 1992 Los Angeles riots…

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Several screws loose (or altogether missing): Recapping my latest laptop misadventure

May 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 2, 2015

I almost forgot to write about my laptop meltdown. No, not that one — I’m talking about the latest one.

It happened a month ago, on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. I was just sitting down at a coffee shop when my MacBook Pro started acting screwy. Then it stopped working. Multiple attempts to restart the machine failed to get things loading properly.

I scheduled an appointment at the nearest Apple Store for the morning of Saturday, April 4. When I went in, I was told that the hardware was mostly* in order, but I appeared to have experienced a failure of my hard drive and/or the cable that connects it to the rest of the computer.

As it happened, of course, the hard drive had been replaced a few years ago, and a new connecting cable had just been installed in November. But when I raised these points with the Apple Genius, I was told that these parts and repairs were only covered by 90-day warranties. Therefore, the coverage had expired.

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Out of order: Despair and the American way

May 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
May 1, 2015

There have been a handful of days in my life that have shaken my belief in America, the nation that has sheltered and nurtured me. Two of them have come in the last six months.

The earliest such occasion was March 30, 1981, when I came home from school and learned that someone had attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan. It was the first time since 1963 that an assassin had seriously jeopardized the life of the leader of the free world.

The next world-shattering day was Jan. 28, 1986, when the seven people aboard the space shuttle Challenger were killed by an explosion 73 seconds into their ascent. It was the first time in history that an American space mission which had cleared the gantry had resulted in the loss of lives. I got out of school early because of testing and spent the afternoon in the basement of my friend Eric’s house watching coverage of the catastrophe on CNN and other TV channels. The deaths seemed entirely at odds with my belief in the United States (and in adults) as technologically competent.

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