Archive for September, 2015

Recent Readings for Sept. 29, 2015

September 29, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 29, 2015

• The next Supreme Court term. Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress has a useful primer on three cases that the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider in its next term, which starts on Monday. One of the cases could result in depriving public-sector unions of what are called agency fees or fair share fees, a vital funding stream. Another could change how state legislatures draw their districts. A third case, Fisher vs. University of Texas, which the court already considered in 2012, could affect the future of affirmative action. Millhiser also notes that the court is likely to agree to hear two major reproductive health rights cases.

• Skeptical police response to sexual assault allegations ultimately costs a young child his life. Katie J.M. Baker’s feature article about Virginia authorities’ questionable handling of a possible rape electrified my Twitter feed Sunday evening. Police didn’t believe the complainant and ended up filing charges against her and her sister — charges that were used as leverage against the sister in what turned out to be a fateful custody hearing. The next time someone is tempted to ask why a potential rape victim didn’t contact the authorities, he or she would do well to remember Baker’s chronicle.

• Can the brother of a victim in the Lockerbie bombing help bring perpetrators to justice? Patrick Radden Keefe describes the many ways in which an obsession with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 has forever changed Ken Dornstein’s life. Only one man was ever convicted for his involvement with this act of terrorism, but after finishing Keefe’s story, I was persuaded that at least one other individual likely got away with mass murder.

Author’s note: Dornstein’s film, My Brother’s Bomber, will be broadcast in three parts on the PBS documentary series Frontline beginning tonight; the second and third segments will air on Oct. 6 and Oct. 13. MEM

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On Thursday night: Act IV, Act V, Epilogue

September 28, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 28, 2015

And now, back to our story

Act IV.

We got down to 10 players — the final table, at least unofficially. I considered changing my spot at the end of the table, where my cards had been absolutely atrocious, but instead decided to stay where I was. I can be a stubborn cuss, I can.

I think we’d gotten down to nine players when I got what I’d waited oh, so long for: a pocket pair. They were a middle pair, eights — not great. But I’d been so starving for good cards that I shoved all in with hardly a moment’s thought.

Almost as soon as I did it, I had reservations. Lee, two spots to my left, was short stack at the table. I should have waited until he’d gone out, I told myself, due to the way World Tavern Poker allocates points. (The league accords significant value to a final table of eight people, so finishing eighth yields a significantly better haul of points than does finishing ninth.) But it was too late: I’d shipped my chips; I was committed.

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On Thursday night: Act II, Act III

September 27, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 27, 2015

And now, back to our story

Act II.

When the second tournament got under way, I took a spot at the third table, a pool table that had been covered up. I like starting at that table, and I particularly like starting at a spot in the farthest corner from the entrance. But since that had already been taken, I chose a spot on the short side of the table near the entrance. If I turned my head to the right, I’d have a good view of a television that was showing the National Football League’s Thursday night Giants–Washington game.

I was slightly peeved about not being able to sit in my favorite spot, but I was more bothered by the fact that the person to my left was a formidable player named Chris. And as it turned out, an equally good player, Doc, was seated to my right a hand or two after the tournament began, meaning that I was sandwiched between two of the region’s top competitors.

Doc wouldn’t be there for long. Two hands after he started, he was dealing, I was in the small blind and Chris was in the big blind. Some people got in the hand. Doc, I think, raised. I had ace-eight and considered calling; instead, I folded.

The flop turned out to be quite tasty, however: ace-ace-jack. I raised my eyebrows slightly. Damn, I thought*. Maybe I should have played.

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On Thursday night: Cold open, prologue, Act I

September 27, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 27, 2015

The Cold Open.

I’m sitting across a table from a man named Eric. We are heads up at the conclusion of a no-cash Texas holdem poker tournament. The three cards from the flop are on the table. After a series of post-flop bets, we’ve both agreed to go all-in.

Eric has me covered, but I have the superior hand — for now. As I cautiously remind Eric, he can beat me: “All you need is for the board to pair.”

I burn a card and put out the turn. It’s a 10. I relax a minute amount: That card did not help Eric.

I burn again and reach for the final card — fifth street, the river. I’m holding my breath…


The Prologue.

Several hours earlier, on Thursday afternoon, I was steaming. I regularly drive a Durham man named K— to local World Tavern Poker events. After an exchange of text messages, I’d swung by his house to pick him up, but he hadn’t been ready. After impatiently waiting for a few minutes — I was eager to beat the traffic — I got out of my car, walked up to his porch and knocked on his door.

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Two women, trapped in different ways, navigate the end of the world in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood’

September 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 25, 2015

In 2004, the acclaimed Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, the dour story of a love triangle. The narrative begins in a dystopian future North America and ends after a pandemic has wiped out most of civilization, or what passed for it. In 2009, Atwood’s The Year of the Flood came out. I started reading it in March and completed it, after several interruptions (and one boneheaded accident), in August.

The book turns out to be another science fictional outing and is, in fact, the middle leg of what has dubbed the MaddAddam trilogy. Where Oryx and Crake, from what I recall, was told exclusively from the narrator’s point of view, the 2009 book is more ambitious: It alternates between two characters. Atwood also tacks between the past, in the same dystopian society depicted in Oryx and Crake, and the post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited by the previous book’s lonesome narrator. (Yes, there are a handful of human survivors — just why that is Atwood reveals in the course of time.)

One of the protagonists here is Toby, whose parents died while she was a college student (long before the plague), leaving her essentially alone and without resources. After some misadventures that will haunt her, Toby winds up becoming a teacher in a Christian sect of nature-loving hippies who call themselves the God’s Gardeners. There, one of her students is Ren, the book’s other protagonist, whose mother later takes her away from the sect and back to what the Gardeners call the External World.

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Wendy Wasserstein’s 1981 coming-of-age comedy ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ explores questions that still resonate today

September 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 24, 2015

Because — full disclosure — a friend of mine plays a role in the new Cary Players production of Isn’t It Romantic, I went to see the revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s 1981 comedy on opening night at the Cary Arts Center.

The show is quite enjoyable, mixing humor and pathos as it shows Janie and her longtime friend, Harriet, negotiating the compromises and sacrifices that they must make in their work and personal lives after moving back to New York City in their late 20s. Harriet, who as the show opens is a freshly minted Harvard M.B.A. on the verge of being hired by the Colgate company, is career-driven, much like her mother. In fact, a key question she faces is how much she wants to follow the trail blazed by her mother, Lillian, a successful business executive and single parent — which would have made her something about as unusual as a unicorn in the 1960s and ’70s.

This cake was displayed in the lobby of the Cary Arts Center during the premier of the Cary Players production of “Isn’t It Romantic” by Wendy Wasserstein on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015.

This cake was displayed in the lobby of the Cary Arts Center during the premier of the Cary Players production of “Isn’t It Romantic” by Wendy Wasserstein on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015.

Janie isn’t exactly certain what she wants. For months after she moves into her downtown Manhattan apartment, she puts off unpacking. She begins a romance with Marty, a sweet doctor whose father is a schlocky restaurateur (and possible arsonist), but she drags her feet whenever he expresses interest in moving in together, getting married and starting a family.

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Accessory shopping and getting back to normal

September 23, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 23, 2015

Just a few notes on my new laptop.

Data from the old laptop has been moved onto the new laptop; that went pretty smoothly. I also purchased an extended warranty and a protective case without incident.

Well, the extended warranty was acquired without incident, at least. I’m still a little bemused by the lengths I had to go to to get the case.

For some reasons, stores (online and otherwise) are overflowing with laptop sleeves; the same is true of coverings and cases for tablets. But a sleeve, at least to the best of my knowledge, won’t protect a computer unless it’s inserted into the sleeve, in which case the machine can’t be used. So I wanted a shell.

When I returned to the Apple Store in Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall last week, I asked about laptop shells and was directed to the establishment’s back right corner. There I found, yes, a seemingly endless selection of sleeves and iPad cases. But there were only two or three different shells for sale.

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In ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ Rebecca Skloot describes how one woman’s cancer yielded a strange and important legacy

September 22, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 22, 2015

Recently, I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 nonfiction account of the personal and scientific journeys experienced by a Maryland women’s family and cells.

Lacks was the great-granddaughter of slave owners who grew up on what had once been a plantation in Southern Virginia. She died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951 due to an unusually aggressive strain of cervical cancer. Lacks was only 31.

Her story, and her family’s story, might have been lost to history but for two reasons. One is that doctors at the hospital took a sample of the cancerous cells in her body, found that they grew prolifically and soon shared them widely with scientists around the nation and the world. The easily cultivated cells, dubbed HeLa, have been called one of the most important developments in medicine in the 20th century.

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Triumph over the Trojans: Stanford powers to a 41-31 road win in Los Angeles

September 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 21, 2015

When I met a friend and fellow Stanford alumnus at a Durham restaurant shortly before the kickoff of the Cardinal football team’s game at USC Saturday night, he asked me how I felt about the contest.

Jim was clearly worried, and I couldn’t lie: I was, too. “I’m skeptical,” I said*.

Then, not wanting to be too much of a negative nelly, I changed tacks.

“But you know, if the team could do it in 2007…” I said.

In 2007, Jim Harbaugh was a first-year coach at Stanford in his initial head-coaching job in the major college ranks. USC, the second-ranked team in the nation, was coached by Pete Carroll, who today is coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances with the Seattle Seahawks and back then was fresh from piloting the Trojans to a loss in the national championship. Despite being 41-point underdogs, despite starting a quarterback with three college passes to his name, despite the Trojans not having lost a home game in six years, Stanford knocked off USC in a game that some hail as the greatest upset ever.

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Breakthrough: Stanford finds its scoring groove in home opener against UCF

September 19, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 19, 2015

Stanford football’s 2015 home debut against the University of Central Florida was one of the final games to begin last weekend, with a kickoff at 7:35 p.m. Pacific Time. It took more than two minutes of game time before either team got a first down.

On the second play of the Cardinal’s second possession, fifth-year running back Remound Wright ripped off a 10-yard carry. That seemed to get Stanford’s attack untracked — sort of — as two of the next three plays resulted in first downs. (In order, they were an incomplete pass by Kevin Hogan, a 13-yard rush by Christian McCaffrey and a 15-year connection between Hogan and wideout Michael Rector.)

Rector’s reception gave the Cardinal first down and 10 yards to go at the UCF 45-yard-line, but the team soon faltered. A holding penalty on Stanford nullified the snap at the 45; a false start followed, as did an illegal block call on senior left guard Joshua Garnett that wiped out what might otherwise have been a first-down run by Hogan. Stanford punted from UCF’s 33, and the remainder of the first quarter was one gigantic bog of mediocrity.

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Our dysfunctional democracy: The Bushies’ win-at-all-costs mentality helped kill American unity after 9/11

September 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 18, 2015

Author’s note: I started to write about this topic in my inaugural Recent Readings and then realized that I had way too much material to pack into just a paragraph or three. Hence, the following post. MEM 

Heather Digby Parton, the indispensable Salon commentator, began her column on Tuesday by assessing American unity immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Back then, Parton writes, “The man who should have been president, Al Gore, famously said, ‘George W. Bush is my commander in chief.’” By wide margins, Congress passed the Patriot Act and authorized military action in both Afghanistan, which harbored the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq, which had no connection to that tragedy and had not been actively developing weapons of mass destruction for years prior to the 2003 invasion.

Parton doesn’t delve into it, but, to my mind, it seems that very much the wrong set of people were in the White House in 2001. I write this not because I believe that there was a miscarriage of justice in the Florida elections process, and in the Supreme Court, although both of those things arguably happened.

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Rivals in magic duel to the death, and possibly beyond, in ‘The Prestige’

September 18, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 18, 2015

Author’s note: I had this post almost ready to go on Sept. 9 when my computer went kablooey. Well, I’ve got a new machine now and I’m back online, so here, at long last, is the post you’ve been waiting for — my review of a Christopher Nolan film released nine years ago. Enjoy, all! MEM

The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie based on the 1995 Christopher Priest novel of the same title, begins by plunging the viewer into the heart of a tangled web of misdirection and deception.

Just before magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) performs his signature feat, dubbed the New Transported Man, spectators in an immense ritzy London theater sometime near the beginning of the 20th century are invited to the stage to examine what purports to be a teleportation device. But one of the men who’s chosen to do so is not what he seems. As Angier runs through his spiel, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) brushes past a stagehand and descends below the stage, where he finds a blind man — completely oblivious to Borden’s presence — sitting patiently.

The scenes are narrated by a long monologue that turns out to be delivered by Cutter (Michael Caine), Angier’s ingénieur — a facilitator of illusions. “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts,” Cutter tells us.

The first part is called the pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t.

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On speeding, free speech and youthful mistakes

September 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2015

A recent Gawker post was headlined “Court Affirms Your Right to Scrawl ‘Fuck Your Shitty Town’ on Speeding Tickets Received in Shitty Towns.” The only reason I clicked on the link was because I happened to notice the name of the town, which appeared on the Gawker home page in the image of the parking ticket on which profanity had been written: Liberty, N.Y.

Before I mention why that place holds significance for me, let’s attend to the Gawker writeup by Jay Hathaway. A Connecticut man cited for traveling at 82 miles per hour in a zone with a speed limit of 65 defaced the ticket that he mailed to the town court when he paid his fine. The court declined to accept the payment, summoned the motorist to appear before it in person and arrested him on a charge of aggravated harassment. The New York Civil Liberties Union got involved and helped get the charge dismissed thanks to free-expression rights established by the First Amendment.

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Recent Readings for Sept. 17, 2015

September 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2015

Welcome to the first entry in Recent Readings, which I hope will become a more-or-less weekly series of postings here on the blog. The title should be self-explanatory. Let’s get to it, shall we?

History as foreshadowing in the Pacific Northwest. Ann Finkbeiner has some scary news about the seismic tendencies of the Pacific Northwest, a region where earthquakes are relatively infrequent. But when they come, quakes in this area have historically been prolonged — perhaps three minutes in duration! — and extremely violent, thanks in no small part to the tsunamis that follow them. The consequences of the next quake could be catastrophic.

Finkbeiner filters this story through an anthropological lens, examining research on the stories Native Americans told about the devastating quakes of centuries past. About midway through her article, she strikes an oddly comforting note: Although the quakes had devastating short-term consequences, wiping out homes and killing many people and animals, the affected communities re-established themselves with minimal long-term changes.

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My epic shell quest (part 1 of — dear lord, I hope this is the only part!)

September 16, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2015

I’m back online!

That is, I’ve got a working computer. I was online without one, thanks to my iPhone and my friends’ computer, which I borrowed over the weekend. But the refurbished MacBook Pro with retina display that I ordered on Saturday arrived Tuesday morning, meaning that I can once again type on my own machine.

Things are not yet back to normal, however. I have three important things to do with my new laptop:

Transfer backed-up data from my old laptop to the new machine. I expect to get this done Tuesday evening (after I complete this post but before it is, er, posted).

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A note to readers

September 10, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 10, 2015

Well, it’s happened. My six-year-old MacBook Pro gave up the ghost, and this time it’s for good. That’s mainly because I will not pay anything to get the computer fixed, and I won’t even bother to bring it into the Apple Store to see what’s wrong. 

I had a blog post about the film Memento nearly finished when the machine started going haywire. It took me a while to realize that there was a serious malfunction going on, as opposed to a small difficulty connecting with the local wireless network. I now believe that the hard drive is shot. 

Today, I connected my Internet router to my circa-2005 iMac with an Ethernet cable and tried to log onto WordPress. I couldn’t do so because the keyboard’s A key does not work.

The upshot is that I’m going to select and order a new laptop computer this weekend. Hopefully, I will have it in hand by Wednesday or so next week. Until then, the blog will be either dark or featuring only short posts. 

Northwestern leaves flat Cardinal in purple daze after 16-6 season-opening defeat

September 7, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 7, 2015

Contrary to what the record books would have you believe, the Stanford Cardinal didn’t field a single football team in 2014.

On paper, last year’s club had an 8-5 record. But those victories and losses were really the product of two teams. There was the vigorous, buoyant Dr. Jekyll that ran up no fewer than 31 points apiece in seven games over Davis, Army, Washington State, Oregon State, Cal, UCLA and Maryland — all victories. And then there was the sickly, anemic Mr. Hyde that mustered no more than 17 points per outing in five games against USC, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and Utah — all losses. (The Cardinal also squeaked out a 20-13 road win against Washington in a game that the Huskies arguably squandered by attempting a questionable fake punt near midfield.)

2014’s brightest moments were unquestionably the resounding Big Game win, the Cardinal’s fifth straight against its closest rival; the surprising thumping of UCLA, a top-10 team, at the Rose Bowl; and the 45-21 domination of Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl. The year’s worst moments were… Well, it’s hard to choose whether rock bottom was the 13-10 home loss to USC, the 17-14 loss to the Fighting Irish, or weak road efforts against Arizona State and Oregon. For my money, though, the year’s worst outing was a 20-17 home (!) loss in double overtime (!!) to Utah (!!!).

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Gov. Scott Walker takes radically different positions when it comes to interpreting Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Constitution

September 5, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 5, 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a fascinating interview with CNBC reporter John Harwood this week. I was struck by many of the things the Midwestern Republican and aspiring presidential nominee said, but perhaps the most interesting comments revolved around deciphering the meaning of texts.

Take this exchange:

HARWOOD: Ronald Reagan, as you know, strongly opposed the passage of Medicare, said it was an infringement of liberty, socialized medicine. Was he right about that?

WALKER: Well, we’re not going to take Medicare away. He gave that speech, as I remember, three years before I was born. So I can’t judge what he meant at the time. I’m just going to tell you, for people at or near retirement, we’re not touching Social Security. We’re going make sure that they have an intact Medicare system. For my generation and younger, yeah — needs to be some sort of reforms. We live in a 401(k) society.

The meat of Walker’s answer — near-term retirees needn’t worry, but wholesale changes must be made so the program remains viable for younger workers — consists of wholly generic Republican talk about popular social welfare programs. But the most intriguing part of the governor’s reply involves his preamble.

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My root canal!

September 4, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 4, 2015

If I was distressed by the prospect of getting dental work done back in June, it’s fair to say that my emotions were hovering just a smidge under absolutely terrified prior to the root canal that I had Thursday afternoon.

(Spoiler alert: Reader, I lived!)

A tooth near the back of my lower jaw on the starboard side of my face had been slated to get a crown. But when the dental hygienist first installed a temporary crown in July, the bite wasn’t right — the temp was too tall. I suffered with discomfort for a few days before returning to get things adjusted.

The dentist filed the corresponding tooth on the upper jaw to reduce the extent to which it came down; the hygienist then made additional adjustments to the temp. Because I was scheduled to leave for a vacation, the office arranged for me to return that Friday to have the crown permanently installed, something which I’d otherwise intended to get done upon my return in early August.

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Smartphone reset, summer 2015 (part 3 of some)

September 2, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 2, 2015

The Apple Store in Raleigh, N.C., is located in the Crabtree Valley Mall, a place I hadn’t visited in a few years. Getting there involved the usual nonsense: Driving, parking, walking.

I was a little taken aback when I got to the Apple Store: It was teeming with people. I made my way toward the back, where the technical support seems to be located in every Apple Store, and checked in with an employee.

About a minute later, a fellow whose name I don’t remember steered me to a table and began helping me. I mumbled something to the effect that that was fast, and the employee told me that I’d come in a bit of a lull.

“Really?” I asked*. I stammered something to the effect that there were a bunch of people. The guy just shrugged, seemingly unimpressed. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. If this was what the store was like when it wasn’t that busy, it must be an absolute madhouse when it was crowded.

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Smartphone reset, summer 2015 (part 2 of some)

September 1, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 1, 2015

After abruptly canceling my mid-August road trip, I spent 90 minutes or so at the library before heading back home.

Once there, I did something that I hadn’t done either at the library or in my car: I attached my seemingly dead iPhone to a charger and plugged it in. This gave me a surprise: The device came back on, although the sleep/wake button still seemed to have absolutely no effect.

As a test, I unplugged the phone and attempted to reset it. It failed to come back on. But once again, when it was plugged in, the phone came on and seemed to function normally, with the exception of the sleep/wake button.

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