Archive for January, 2016

The promising but forgotten pilot ‘Earth Star Voyager’ delivers moderately entertaining science fiction content

January 29, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 29, 2016

My illness-induced quest for mindless entertainment extended beyond watching the dire Star Wars Holiday Special. Thanks to the magic of YouTube’s algorithms, I stumbled upon Earth Star Voyager, a three-hour television pilot from 1988 that I believe originally aired under the rubric of an anthology show known either as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color or The Wonderful World of Disney.

I’m not sure whether the program was first broadcast on ABC, CBS or Disney’s cable channel. What I do know is that at some point, I saw at least part of it, and I remembered it fondly.

The premise is pretty straightforward: In 2088, the powers that be assign 115 mainly young officers and hands to the Earth Star Voyager, a new ship that features the Bowman drive, a cutting-edge propulsion system that can make crewed interstellar flight practical. Because Earth is a toxic, overcrowded dump, humanity is in desperate need of a new home, and a potential site has been found. Earth Star Voyager’s mission is to embark upon the first crewed excursion to another star so it can evaluate the candidate planet firsthand. Because the trip will take decades, the crew will spend nightly sleep periods in suspended animation; the ship also has a nursery to accommodate the children who will be born en route.

But the ship has only just gotten under way before Captain Forbes (Ric Reid) is ejected from an airlock, apparently due to the deliberate malice of an unknown crew member. That leaves the ship in the hands of its untested 21-year-old executive officer, Jonathan Hays (Brian McNamara), and his highly trained but inexperienced command team: Hays’s close friend, the 14-year-old computer specialist and all-around young super-genius Jessie Bienstock (Jason Michas); cocky navigator Huxley Welles (Tom Bresnahan), age 18; the 24-year-old ship’s doctor, Sally Arthur (Julia Montgomery, the female lead from Revenge of the Nerds); and the 22-year-old psychiatrist, Leland Eugene (Bruce Harwood, who went on to become one of The X-Files’s Lone Gunmen).

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‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’ is a widely mocked backwater in one of science fiction’s most durable franchises

January 28, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2016

I came down with a cold last week, meaning that for a few days, it was difficult for me to concentrate on anything, or even to extract myself from bed. Once I started recovering, on Friday, I was in desperate need of mindless entertainment. (A bout with illness two winters ago, in 2014, led me to discover two smartphone games, Dumb Ways to Die and Smash Hit.)

That was one reason why I watched 1978’s infamous Star Wars Holiday Special on Friday. There were a few others. One is that after seeing The Force Awakens earlier this month, I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia trip for Star Wars, to the extent that I’ve watched a variety of short YouTube films on different Star Wars video games (mainly the past two versions of Battlefront and various editions of Rogue Squadron). Another reason is that one of the podcasts I enjoy, How Did This Get Made?, did an episode on The Star Wars Holiday Special late last year.

In addition, I had a very vague memory of seeing a snippet of the CBS special when it originally aired, and I recalled having enjoyed that bit. Finally, The Star Wars Holiday Special contains the debut of one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, the menacing bounty hunter Boba Fett, and I confess to being curious about his premier.

Frankly, just about every bad thing I can remember hearing about The Star Wars Holiday Special is true: It is poorly written, badly acted and shoddily produced. After watching it the other day, I couldn’t tell you what audience the makers were trying to reach or to please, and honestly, I doubt they could have told you that either while they were filming the thing.

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The neglected glass of water, the kitchen table and the confused doggie

January 26, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 26, 2016

I visited Ye Olde Parental Home, a.k.a. YOPH, in late December and early January. In a phone conversation with my Parental Unit yesterday, I was told an anecdote which I found amusing, and which relates to that visit, and which I herein communicate to you, the valued reader of the MEMwrites blog.

When I departed the house this month, I apparently left a glass of water sitting on what I will call the kitchen table. This piece of furniture is rarely used when company is absent from YOPH, and so my parent left the glass there for two weeks or so.

However, the other day, my parent was using the table to (apparently) do some paperwork. At one point, the Parental Unit made a sweeping motion with an arm, inadvertently knocking over the glass and getting water everywhere. My parent, surprised and angered, shouted out my name: Matthew!

The family dog, Lucky the yellow Labrador retriever, heard this and perked up. Was Matthew here? When did he arrive? Where is he? She started searching the house for one of her favorite people. He’s not on the first floor. I’ll check his bedroom. He’s not there either. Where is he? Where’s Matthew?

I wasn’t there, of course, but it was adorable that she thought so. Confused dogs can be so cute!

A slight excess of goofiness taints the majestic science-fiction horror atmosphere established in ‘Event Horizon’

January 25, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 25, 2016

Event Horizon is my favorite bad movie of all time. I love this 1997 feature because it comes oh so close to bona fide greatness.

The story is set in the year 2047, 32 years after humanity has established its first permanent base on the moon and a quarter-century after commercial mining has begun on Mars. After a brief prologue in which an obviously lonely scientist, William “Billy” Weir, wakes from a nightmare and tells a photograph of what turns out to be his dead wife that he misses her dearly, the action shifts to the U.S. Aerospace Command vessel Lewis and Clark minutes before it fires its main engines for a 72-day journey to the remote reaches of the solar system.

Only after the ship arrives and its crew emerges from stasis chambers — and after Weir, who’s tagging along for the ride, suffers another nightmare — do Capt. Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and his comrades learn why they have been yanked from a well-deserved shore leave and dispatched to the rarely visited fringes of known space. It turns out that a ship thought destroyed in 2040 has been found in a decaying orbit around the planet Neptune, where it is broadcasting a short but cryptic radio signal.

The Event Horizon was said to be a research vessel that was lost after its reactor went critical. But Weir (Sam Neill) informs his captive (and highly skeptical) audience that this information was fictitious — a cover story. In actuality, the ship disappeared without a trace after activating its gravity drive, a novel device built by Weir that may permit interstellar travel by folding the space-time continuum.

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The saga of the car stereo

January 22, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 22, 2016

One day last week, I got into my car and turned the key. The engine started but my radio didn’t.

I think I noticed the radio’s silence only after I’d been driving for a few minutes. I fiddled with the dials and pressed different buttons, but nothing had any effect. I plugged in my smart phone — it connects to the car stereo through one of those cassette adaptors people started using when portable compact-disc players began becoming popular — and cranked up a podcast. I heard the audio, but very very faintly; none of the words were comprehensible.

I was going into a busy weekend with the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, so I knew I’d have to suffer without a radio for a few days. I tried playing a podcast just with my smart phone speaker, but it wasn’t loud enough once I got on the freeway. Sad Matthew face!

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Dollars, dreams and journalism: Comparing the visions of Hamilton Nolan and Steve Brill

January 20, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 20, 2016

I recently came across two stories that surveyed the state of the media, and they made for interesting contrasts.

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote “The Problem With Journalism Is You Need an Audience” in the wake of the closures of the quirky, prestige long-form sports website Grantland and, more recently, of Al Jazeera America, the cable news network that aspired to provide in-depth audiovisual journalism. Nolan also references the announcement that the owner of The New Republic is seeking a buyer to take it off of his hands. That last development comes roughly a year after Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’s purchase of, and announcement of planned changes to, the boutique intellectual magazine with a liberal bent caused a mass walkout of New Republic staffers.

Nolan is something of a cynic, although he would, I am sure, describe himself as a realist. His core message is that there is no mass audience for quality journalism, or at least for a mass-market product that revolves almost exclusively around quality journalism. Instead, he writes, the only business models that are sustainable in and of themselves in the long term are mass-media outlets “that have huge scale and publish everything for everyone (TV news networks, major national newspapers, Buzzfeed)” or niche publications such as trade magazines.

Outside of those two channels, Nolan posits, the only successful types of media are either small-scale operations or ones that are subsidized in some way, whether as a charity or by a tycoon or large media organization that makes its profits elsewhere. Nolan lists The New Yorker, which belongs to the Condé Nast magazine-publishing conglomerate, and Grantland, which was a branch of the ESPN sports-television media empire, as examples of prestige outlets supported by corporations.

Interestingly, this recent interview with journalist and businessman Steve Brill focuses on newspapers, which don’t seem to fit into any of the categories Nolan reviews. (Maybe they qualify as niche publications?)

When his comments are considered on a superficial level, Brill sounds nearly as cynical as Nolan. Brill blasts the management of the newspapers, both large and small, with which he dealt as head of Press Plus, which helped establish pay walls for newspaper websites.

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An unlikely love blossoms in the 1950s in Todd Haynes’s excellent ‘Carol’

January 15, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 15, 2016

Director Todd Haynes develops a romance between a young shop clerk and an elegant married mother in Carol, his new adaptation of a 1952 novel by the American writer Patricia Highsmith.

The title character, an upper-crust New Jerseyan, is played by Cate Blanchett. The exotic Australian actress, who may possess the most prominent cheekbones in history, portrays Carol Aird as a sort of cocktail: four parts confidence and two parts doubt along with an infusion of alcohol and nicotine. (The ratio of the latter two elements varies widely from scene to scene but tends to be high.) When she meets Therese Belivet, the younger woman is working at a Manhattan department store. The mousy, neurotic Belivet, whose first name is pronounced tuh-REZ, is so low on the store’s totem pole that she’s subjected to a manager’s withering regard for having the temerity to ask to borrow a pencil and paper.

The movie is framed by a meeting Therese and Carol have at a hotel tea service — potentially their very last encounter — that’s interrupted by one of Belivet’s friends.

Carol is in the process of divorcing Harge Aird (Kyle Chandler, the straight-laced FBI agent in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). The resentful Harge becomes suspicious of Belivet the moment he sees her, and he is more than willing to use evidence of a lesbian liaison as leverage in the divorce proceedings.

Belivet is dating Richard Semco (Jake Lacy), a younger, less well-heeled version of Harge who’s cajoling Therese into marrying and/or taking a honeymoon in Europe. But the reluctant Belivet is more interested in taking photographs — although usually not of people, which she sees as an invasion of privacy — and talking to her friend who works for The New York Times than she is in reciprocating the affections of either Richard or her reporter pal. (I didn’t catch this character’s name.)

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Notes on losing my hair, voluntarily and otherwise

January 13, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 13, 2016

Around 18 years ago, I holed up in the bathroom of the house where I grew up and used an electric trimmer and a razor to shave off all my hair.

My parents were working on some project in the house whilst I did this and were completely unaware of my endeavor. When I emerged, newly bald, they were horrified; they seemed to think that I looked like a skinhead — a look, and a term, that I think they associated with racist neo-Nazis.

Later that day or soon afterward, I donned a trusty classic Stanford baseball cap and drove over to a local marketing firm where a couple of my friends worked. Uncharacteristically, I kept the hat on when I went inside. It took a few minutes before anyone noticed anything. (My friend J— said that she thought my hair was awfully short until she looked again and saw that I didn’t seem to have any hair at all.)

I felt a little self-conscious about my lack of hair, but that wore off. As it grew back in, I appeared to have a crew cut. The hair seemed bristly and coarse, but in fact it was extremely soft to the touch, like the fur of a puppy.

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Notes on my hair

January 12, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 12, 2016

I wear my hair in two styles, which I’ll describe in a moment. Essentially the only picture I’ve ever seen of myself, or at least of my post-infant self, that hasn’t shown either of the two aforementioned hairstyles was one taken in elementary school, a school portrait. It showed me with a bowl cut, no part to be found. I think I look goofy in that picture, and I hate it.

My hair is dark brown now, if not actually black, and has been for years. When I was younger, however, my hair was different: It was blond, or at least dirty blond. That light(er) color in this elementary-school picture, and when I look at it, for a fleeting moment, I think I might be looking at a picture of my sibling, whose hair stayed lighter for far longer than mine.

Now, about those hairstyles. For as long as I can remember, when my hair is short, I have parted it on the left. One of my favorite pictures of myself is also a school portrait, taken I believe in junior high school, that I believe shows off this hairstyle to good effect.

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Recent Readings for Jan. 9, 2016

January 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 9, 2016

• “The Fall of King Coal.” In December, a federal jury convicted former Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship of conspiracy to violate federal mine-safety laws, a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a year in prison. In “The Fall of King Coal,” which Mother Jones published in the fall as Massey’s trial was getting under way, reporter Tim Murphy took a close look at Blankenship’s career, which involved breaking union strikes as well as existing contracts and safety and environmental regulations.

“It was very, very obvious from the first part that [Blankenship] cared about one thing and one thing only, and that was the dollar, and it was clear that he worshipped at the altar of greed and dollars, and he wouldn’t let anything get in the way,” one longtime union foe told Murphy.

• “The Corporate Takeover of the Red Cross.” The American Red Cross did not have a good 2015, when several reports came out exposing it as a floundering and at times ineffective organization. Take, for instance, a June report from ProPublica and NPR that bore the headline “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes.”

Last month, Justin Elliott extended his reporting on the American Red Cross by describing how former AT&T executive Gail McGovern has brought a businesslike mentality to the charity that has coincided with, if not actually caused, budget deficits, layoffs, internal cutbacks, sagging morale and the loss of trust by countless volunteers and partners. One of McGovern’s apparent missteps was hiring Jack McMaster, a former AT&T colleague who ran a Dutch telecom company into the ground before getting a job with the Red Cross.

• “Republican doom doesn’t equal Democrat victory: Our political chaos could destroy them both.” Salon columnist Andrew O’Hehir blasts the left and the right in this essay:

Clinton’s tone and rhetoric have been measured during this campaign, but as Salon’s Bill Curry wrote recently, she remains an unregenerate foreign-policy hawk who shows every sign of yearning to double down on failed military overreach. Whatever you think she may have said, Clinton has absolutely not ruled out sending American troops by the thousands to fight a ground war against the Islamic State. She has called out Republican candidates for their “bluster and bigotry” and rejected talk of a “war on Islam,” which is all to the good. But the policy proposals discernible below her calm and resolute-sounding language over the last month are virtually indistinguishable from those of the non-Trump GOP contenders: More war, more surveillance, less First Amendment. “You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: ‘Freedom of speech,’” she told a Brookings Institution audience on Dec. 6. I know! As if that’s in the Constitution or something!

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A short anecdote about walking the dog

January 8, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 8, 2016

One afternoon late in December 2015, my parental unit, Lucky the yellow Labrador retriever and I were strolling around my parent’s neighborhood.

My parent has hired a trainer to conduct regular sessions with Lucky. This is by necessity: Lucky is an energetic eight-year-old who weighs more than 60 pounds and is by far the largest canine my parent has ever had custody of. In turn, my parent has trained me how to work with the dog.

Usually when I walk with Lucky, I’ll hold the end of her leash with my right hand and some treats in my left hand. In cold weather, my right hand is typically gloved. My left hand is not, because I don’t particularly like to get the nice Italian leather gloves that Lady X bought for me on one of her international trips covered with dog slobber, no matter how much I love the dog. (Also, I find it difficult to prevent Lucky from taking more than one treat from my begloved fingers.) Often, I’ll grip a portion of the leash loosely with my left hand.

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Among the stars, war: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ revives a classic space opera but isn’t as compelling as the originals

January 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 7, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens brings together a mix of old and new characters from the mega-successful science-fiction movie series in order to launch a new sequence of cinematic space adventures.

But you probably already know that.

The plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set in motion by a search for Luke Skywalker, the hero who helped topple the evil Galactic Empire at the conclusion of the original Star Wars film trilogy. The missing Jedi, who wields the mystical, magical power of the Force, is sought on the one hand by the evil First Order, an Imperial remnant that retains its predecessor’s taste for mass destruction, and on the other hand by the Resistance, an ill-defined successor to the Rebel Alliance that is long on scrappiness and diversity but seemingly short on everything else.

But you probably already know that, too, because this movie has been selling tickets like gangbusters. Before it was in theaters for three weeks, The Force Awakens earned $1.5 billion worldwide, making it the sixth-highest-grossing feature in history — all without even having opened in the world’s second-largest film market. If the picture is as popular in China as it’s been elsewhere, it could just be a matter of days before the seventh Star Wars movie overtakes Avatar’s $2.8 billion in tickets sold to become the most successful movie of all time.

Which frankly leaves me feeling somewhat baffled, because while The Force Awakens — or Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, to use the complete title — is an occasionally enjoyable movie, I’m hard-pressed to call it a great one. Director J.J. Abrams and his fellow screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, extend the space saga originally created by George Lucas mainly by updating the formula of the original Star Wars and adding a handful of new characters.

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Adam McKay explains how the end of the world got monetized in ‘The Big Short,’ his surprisingly entertaining tale of real-life financial shenanigans

January 2, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 2, 2015

The Big Short is a strangely entertaining and extremely timely movie about a wholly unlikely subject: A handful of investors who anticipated, and got rich because of, the collapse of the American housing market.

Director Adam McKay’s feature is based on Michael Lewis’s 2010 nonfiction book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Lewis also wrote Liar’s PokerMoneyball and The Blind Side, among other books; the first of these drew on Lewis’s experiences on Wall Street, while the latter two became enormously successful sports movies. The latest Lewis-inspired outing was translated to screen by thriller screenwriter Charles Randolph and McKay, the director of such excellent comedies as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

The Big Short tracks three sets of characters in their quest to make a bundle of money while betting against conventional wisdom. One of the men at the heart of the story is Michael Burry, a one-eyed possibly autistic medical doctor who runs a Silicon Valley investment firm. As played by Christian Bale, Burry is an oddball who loves to play heavy metal rock music at eardrum-piercing volumes and who regularly shows up at the office dressed as if he were about to spend a day cleaning his garage. Burry wears the shirt throughout the film, which takes place over the course of about three years.

Burry, who’s capable of prolonged bouts of concentration, finds that an alarming percentage of housing mortgage bonds are based on poorly secured subprime loans. A single bond consists of thousands of individual mortgages, each of which represents the debt owed by a home buyer to a lender; investors buy the bonds in order to receive a share of the monthly mortgage payments.

For decades, such bonds were a rock-solid investment. What Burry discovers — contrary to the assertions of virtually every economist in the known universe — is that many of home loans being made were incredibly risky. As a result, the mortgage bond market is highly overvalued and therefore due for a correction, otherwise be known as a crash.

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The Cardinal rules, 45-16, in a Rose Bowl romp

January 2, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 2, 2016

One of the greatest seasons in Stanford football history ended on Jan. 1, 2016, with a resounding victory in the most hallowed of all college football venues — the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

The Cardinal demolished the Big Ten’s runner-up, the Iowa Hawkeyes, with a 45-16 steamrolling of the type that most Pac-12 teams came to know well in 2015. During the game, Christian McCaffrey set several Rose Bowl records and made a significant fraction of Hawkeyes defenders and Heisman Trophy voters look foolish.

The night before the Rose Bowl, Heisman winner Derrick Henry finished Alabama’s 38-0 embarrassment of the Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans with 20 rushes for 75 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and one catch for minus-two yards.

McCaffrey outdid Henry with his first touch of the game. On the 102nd Rose Bowl’s initial play from scrimmage, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan threw McCaffrey a short pass in the flat that the super sophomore took to the house for a 75-yard touchdown reception. McCaffrey went on to amass 172 yards on 18 carries (9.6 yards per cary) and 105 yards receiving on four catches.

McCaffrey also got two opportunities on special teams — a 28-yard kickoff return and a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown that put the Cardinal ahead, 28-0, early in the second quarter. Add it all up and the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up finished the day with 368 all-purpose yards. Not only was that good for a Rose Bowl record, it made for the fourth-highest total of any bowl game in the history of college football.

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