Archive for March, 2016

Condition: Grounded (or, How I deciphered one of life’s little mysteries)

March 31, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 31, 2016

On Monday evening, I went to a local coffee shop and spent some time finishing up my post about Lewis Shiner’s debut novel, Frontera. When I left, I walked south on Foster Street toward my car. I passed the new building that’s going up on the former site of the historic Liberty Warehouse. It’s opposite a vacant building (once occupied by a Minor League Baseball office, I’m given to understand) that’s apparently destined to be home to another multipurpose building.

These sites are next to Durham Central Park, which is split roughly in half by Foster. I’d left my car on Hunt Street, which forms the park’s southern boundary, steps from the site of yet another multipurpose building that is only just beginning to be constructed on the hill above the southwest corner of Durham Central Park.

I’d gotten most of the way down to Hunt Street when something lying on the ground caught my eye. I turned my head to the left and tried to puzzle out just what I was seeing.

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Four astronauts embark upon a quixotic interplanetary quest in Lewis Shiner’s ‘Frontera’

March 29, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 29, 2016

Frontera, the 1984 first novel by Lewis Shiner, is a the tale of a mission to Mars undertaken by a small, ragtag group of astronauts who harbor multiple secrets and varying agendas. Shiner uses the tale to explore the nature of humanity, asking what happens when traditional governmental and national structures fail due to decisions both intentional and otherwise.

The novel is set at some point in the early 21st century. Ten years ago, as governments around the world began collapsing for unspecified reasons, a ship was sent to Mars to recall colonists from the American base at Frontera. A few dozen souls opted to stay behind; later, their numbers were reinforced by survivors of a disaster (also unspecified) that struck the Soviet Union’s colony on Mars. Frontera sent a few grim transmissions in the two years following the recall, but the updates stopped, and most people believe all the colonists to be dead.

The travelers are quite an eclectic lot: Lena, the expedition’s medico, whom Shiner gives such shallow treatment that she barely exists as a character; Takahashi, scion of the Japanese affiliate of Pulsystems, the corporation that is sponsoring the flight to Mars; Kane, the nephew of Morgan, Pulsystem’s über-capitalist CEO; and Reese, an aging astronaut who was the first American to set foot on Mars, and who never wanted to leave the red planet but did so because (apparently) he was duty-bound to staff the recall flight.

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After the return and failure of the Jedi, what lies ahead for the mystical knights of ‘Star Wars’?

March 27, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 27, 2016

Apropos of very little, I was thinking the other day about possible plot points for the eighth installment of the Star Wars movies, which is due out in December 2017.

According to a recent update of the flick’s Internet Movie Database pageStar Wars — Episode VIII is currently being filmed, and I’m sure director-screenwriter Rian Johnson hammered down most of the script months ago. (If he hasn’t, then a planet of movie-goers could be in for an epic muddle reminiscent of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) So the following has value — if it possesses any at all — solely as idle speculation.

(Dear reader, please beware: There be spoilers ahead for Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens! There will also be spoilers for movies in the original Star Wars trilogy, which came out more than 30 years ago.)

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Words vs. deeds: More thoughts on the end of Marco Rubio’s candidacy

March 25, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 25, 2016

Recently, I wrote about the valedictory that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) delivered last week upon suspending his campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. I touched upon some themes — namely, Rubio’s hypocrisy, and his refusal to acknowledge the radicalism of the conservative branch of American politics — that others have remarked upon elsewhere.

But there was one aspect of Rubio’s speech that I don’t think caught the eye of any other commentator. It involved this part of Rubio’s farewell speech:

My parents struggled their first years here. They were discouraged. They even thought about going back to Cuba at one point, but they persevered. They never became rich. I didn’t inherit any money from my parents. They never became famous. You never would have heard about them if I had never run for office. And yet I consider my parents to be very successful people. Because in this country, working hard as a bartender and a maid, they owned a home and they retired with dignity. In this country, they lived to see all four of their children live better off than themselves. And in this country, on this day, my mother, who is now 85 years old, was able to cast a ballot for her son to be the president of the United States of America.

Something about this relatively simple statement of personal history reflects a fundamental part of the concept of the American dream. Because the United States is a land of opportunity, a land of plenty that welcomes newcomers, one implication of the American dream is that foreigners of humble means can come to this nation, work hard, and be successful enough to own their own homes, retire with dignity (to borrow Rubio’s words) and see their children thrive to an even greater extent than they themselves did.

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In his own words: Ted Cruz on religious liberty

March 22, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 22, 2016

A review of statements
that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
has made about religious liberty: 

“The Pilgrims risked everything so that they could worship the Lord with all their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. The founders enshrined this right to live according to our faith in the First Amendment, and we must continue to celebrate and safeguard citizens’ God-given rights.

“As we have witnessed an unprecedented attack on citizens’ first freedoms, Ted Cruz continues to champion Americans’ religious liberty.

….

“As a presidential candidate, Ted Cruz has hosted two national religious liberties rallies and has brought together Christians who have been persecuted for their beliefs so that people across the country can listen to their stories and stand united for our first freedom.

“On day one, a President Cruz will instruct the Department of Justice, the IRS and every other federal agency that the persecution of religious liberty ends today.”

— Ted Cruz presidential campaign website, undated

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Regarding Sen. Rubio’s attempt to quit the race on a high note

March 19, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 19, 2016

On Tuesday night, I was surprised neither that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio lost the Florida primary to businessman Donald Trump nor that he subsequently dropped out of the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination as a result.

As it happened, I caught Rubio’s concession speech while I was listening to National Public Radio primary election coverage in my car. He gave a good speech and he delivered it well; I can easily understand why some pundits thought that he would be Obama 2.0, a conservative political wunderkind who would energize American youth and minorities in a way no Republican presidential candidate has since — well, perhaps since Ronald Reagan… or maybe it’s more accurate to say in a way that no Republican presidential candidate ever has.

Unfortunately, as so often happens in politics, the lofty rhetoric of Rubio’s farewell speech didn’t match up very well with the cold, hard facts of reality. On Tuesday evening, Rubio said:

[T]his is the campaign we’ve run, a campaign that is realistic about the challenges we face but optimistic about the opportunities before us. A campaign that recognizes the difficulties we face, but also one that believes that we truly are on the verge of a new American century. And a campaign to be president, a campaign to be a president that would love all of the American people, even the ones that don’t love you back.

Compare that with a foreign-policy speech that Rubio delivered in New Hampshire in early January:

What became abundantly clear was this: Barack Obama was deliberately weakening America. He made an intentional effort to humble us back to size, as if to say, “We no longer need to be so powerful because our power has done more harm than good.”

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About St. Patrick’s Day and my lack of Irish heritage

March 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 17, 2016

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Contrary to what you might expect from glancing at my byline, my family is not Irish. My ancestors hailed from points east of Hibernia; the surname used to be Slavic (or maybe Russian, or Georgian? From that general region, anyway) until it was changed in order to make my clan seem more Americanized.

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Notes on the 2016 North Carolina School Scrabble Championship

March 15, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 15, 2016

Last weekend, for the second year in a row, I volunteered at the North Carolina school Scrabble championship, a tournament held in a Chapel Hill elementary school that’s organized by my pal, D—. Since I failed to sustain any injuries this time around, I’ll write about the event itself, at least generally.

The school version of tournament Scrabble differs from the adult version in a few ways. The most significant difference by far is that adults play one on one, while youngsters play in teams of two.

Another difference worth pointing out is that school Scrabble involves students in grades four through eight. As you might expect, there’s a tremendous variety in the sizes, emotional maturity, word knowledge, tactical ability and even interest level of the players. Generally, the older teams tend to be more successful; of the two dozen teams in this year’s tournament, the five duos of eighth graders finished in the top 11 slots, as did a team composed of an eighth grader and a sixth grader. Eight of the bottom nine spots were taken up by teams of fourth and fifth graders.

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And the Weekend Warrior winner was…

March 13, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 13, 2016

Yesterday, I described how having a wearable activity tracker has prompted me to walk more than I otherwise would have. Still, I rarely if ever have walked as much as I did this past weekend. The reason for my activity was not just that I had a Fitbit, or at least not just that; the reason was that I had a Fitbit and a young relative did as well.

My niece (I’ll call her A—), a wonderful middle-school-aged person who lives in another state, loved her grandparent’s Fitbit and asked for one. She received it recently and befriended both my parent and me through the Fitbit social network. Last weekend, A— issued what Fitbit calls a Weekend Warrior challenge. The goal, as stated by Fitbit, is straightforward: “Take more steps than friends from Saturday to Sunday.”

I eagerly joined the challenge, despite knowing that my niece averages about 14,000 steps per day — significantly more than my average of 9,000 to 11,000 steps, depending on the week in question.

I fell behind my niece quickly, which had one beneficial effect: It prompted me to work hard to catch up to her. I took the lead briefly a couple of times over the weekend, only to fall behind every time by 500… 1,000… 2,000… sometimes 4,000 or even more steps!

My parent belatedly joined the challenge. Before too long, my beloved Parental Unit had vaulted over me and was engaging in a spirited contest with A— for first place.

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Some recent experiences with walking, weight loss and wearable gadgets

March 12, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
March 12, 2016

Why do I know so much about the number of steps in a mile and the number of minutes and seconds it takes me to walk a mile?

I know, dear reader, that when you read my post from Friday you must have been asking yourself these very pertinent questions. Fear not; the answer is simple, and comprises but a single word:

Fitbit.

Well, that’s the short answer. The long answer is:

My parental unit got a Fitbit Flex last year. P.U. liked this device but did not enjoy having to consult a smartphone to find out how many steps needed to be taken before the next goal was reached. Consequently, my parent upgraded to the Fitbit Charge.

The Charge is a sort of combination smartwatch and activity tracker. When prompted, it displays the precise number of steps the wearer has taken that day, among other information. My parent, pleased with this device, handed down the Flex to me. I began using it in October.

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