Archive for September, 2016

The further misadventures of my smartphone

September 30, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 30, 2016

It was around 11 on Thursday night and my phone was running out of power. I had my laptop backpack with me, but I don’t usually carry either a Lightning cable or an iPhone charger in it. So I ran out to my car.

I grabbed my cable and started heading back to the establishment. But then I realized that while I now had a cable to charge my phone into, I still needed a charger in which to plug the other end of that cable.

So I hastily dashed back to my car and dug out this one specific book bag–slash–smaller backpack in which I normally do carry a USB charger. I unzipped the appropriate pocket and rifled through it until I had the charger in my clammy little hands.

I threw everything back down, shut my car and began running back to the establishment.

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Stanford moves to 3-0 with two unlikely last-minute touchdowns against the Bruins

September 28, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 28, 2016

Late on Saturday night, matters were looking dire for the No. 7 Stanford football team.

The squad, playing in its first road game of the season, was trailing UCLA 13-9 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, having mustered just a trio of Conrad Ukropina field goals in more than three and a half quarters of play. After Ryan Burns scrambled for two yards on third down with three yards to go, head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren had to decide whether or not to go for it on fourth and 1 at the team’s own 39-yard line.

The seconds ticked away; then the Cardinal used its first timeout, with 4:51 remaining in the game. Then Stanford punted, and fans of the team had to hope against hope that the Cardinal defense could stand fast against Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen and his potent attack.

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Enter Jar Jar, Anakin and stereotypes: Revisiting ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’

September 27, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 26, 2016

In January, I excoriated the The Star Wars Holiday Special, the worst feature-length production in that fantastically popular science-fiction franchise. Today, I come to examine what is widely agreed to be the property’s second-worst movie. I write, of course, about the much-loathed 1999 release that kicked off the prequel trilogy: Star Wars: The Phantom Menance. (Disclaimer: Completists ought to stick “Episode I” in the middle of that title; feel free to punctuate it to your pleasure.)

Until this past weekend, I’d seen The Phantom Menace once and once only: Shortly after its initial theatrical release, some 16 years after the debut of Return of the Jedi, which had capped the original Star Wars trilogy. At the time, anticipation for the film ran high, thanks not only to the years-long interregnum but to a marketing blitz that included oodles and oodles of — well, stuff. (Mel Brooks, it would seem, got it exactly right in this clip from his 1987 film Spaceballs.)

In case you don’t remember the merchandising onslaught, I direct you to this passage that Libby Brooks wrote for The Guardian in June 1999, a month before The Phantom Menace opened in British movie theaters:

Devotees can choose from over 375 different products. The range offers talking figures of the key characters, including Jedi knight Obi Wan-Kenobi and his foe Darth Maul, double-handed light sabres, computer accessories and costumes, as well as the new Lego Star Wars collection.

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So USC came to town last Saturday night…

September 24, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 24, 2016

Given USC’s haughty college football legacy and Stanford’s modest one, Cardinal football fans have found themselves both surprised and gratified to be looking down on the Trojans in recent seasons. Last September, the Cardinal went to Los Angeles and upset the Trojans, 41-31. In December, the teams met again in the Pac-12 championship game, and after a tense third quarter, the Cardinal exploded to claim a 41-22 victory.

But as the disclaimers on the financial-management firm advertisements and prospectuses invariably state, past performance is no guarantee of future results. So when USC came to the Bay Area last Saturday for a game at Stanford Stadium, I was by no means confident in the outcome.

That held true early in the first quarter, when the Cardinal went three and out and Justin Davis opened USC’s initial possession by rushing for 30 yards on the first four plays. But immediately afterward, the Stanford defense asserted itself, holding Davis to a one-yard reception, stopping rusher Ronald Jones II behind the line of scrimmage and then tackling Jones short of the first-down marker on third and 20, which had been set up in part by a USC false start on second and 9.

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People always hate That Team — and in Pac-12 football, That Team is USC Trojans

September 23, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 23, 2016

Every sports league that’s attracted a passionate fan base and that’s had a stable set of teams for more than a few seasons has That Team.

That Team is the team that everybody either loves or hates. That Team is the team that’s been the most successful, and its fans remind you of that success every chance they get. When That Team’s having a good season, its fans take the wins for granted; when That Team’s hit a bit of a lull — don’t worry, it’s just a temporary one! — its fans complain as if every loss is a personal affront deliberately afflicted upon them by an incompetent player and/or coach and/or front office and/or owner. That Team’s players rarely give the other team any credit; when they do, their praise is patently insincere.

In the National Basketball Association, That Team is the Los Angeles Lakers. In the National Football League, That Team is the Dallas Cowboys. In men’s college basketball, That Team is Duke — although it used to be UCLA, and a lot of people, especially fans of fellow ACC teams, also consider Duke’s neighbor, the University of North Carolina, to be That Team.

And in college football, especially in the Pac-12 — formerly the Pac-10, formerly the Pac-8, formerly the Athletic Association of Western Universities, né the Pacific Coast Conference — the University of Southern California is That Team. The Trojans have won 10 national championships in the sport; that tally doesn’t count their 2004 championship, which was revoked post hoc due to NCAA rules violations. In the 100-year history of the conference, the Trojans own an astounding 37 football titles. The school’s 24-8 record in the Rose Bowl, the granddaddy of bowl games, is the high-water mark for wins by a single school in one bowl.

In short, everyone in the Pac-12 wants to beat the Trojans. And when they do, they find that the sensation is addictive. One win isn’t enough — you always want more.

Speaking of which more, I’ll have more on one team’s quest to turn the tables on the Trojans in a forthcoming post.

Peace could be hell for humanity in ‘Starship Troopers 3: Marauder’

September 22, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 22, 2016

Over a 10-year period, Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven released five major motion pictures. The streak began in 1987 with RoboCop, an original science fiction property, and continued with the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle (and Philip K. Dick adaptationTotal Recall, the racy detective thriller Basic Instinct and the cheesecake festival Showgirls before being capped by Starship Troopers, the 1997 adaptation of one of Robert Heinlein’s most popular novels. Verhoeven’s movies tended to be popular but usually earned a cool reception from critics.

But in fact, Starship Troopers wasn’t all that successful. It grossed just shy of $55 million domestically, good for the 35th biggest take of the year, according to Box Office Mojo. (Verhoeven, incidentally, has directed just four pictures since 1997, one of which is due out this fall.)

Somewhat surprisingly, Starship Troopers actually spawned several low-profile spinoffs. The first of these was Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, an animated TV show that generated 44 half-hour episodes in a one-season run that began in 1999. That was followed in 2004 by Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, a direct-to-video live-action effort featuring none of the original cast. I’ve watched about five minutes of one Roughnecks episode and have not seen any of the second movie.

There have been two other movies, although I’m skeptical that either of them received proper theatrical releases. One of these was Starship Troopers: Invasion, a 2012 animated production, which I also haven’t seen. The other was Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, a 2008 live-action flick featuring the star of the original Troopers movie — and this, friends, is the reason why I’ve called us all together this evening.

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Stanford summary: Cardinal beat Kansas State, 26-13, in the 2016 season opener

September 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2016

I enjoyed watching Stanford football’s season opener against Kansas State 15 days ago, on Sept. 2, but I got sidetracked by mumblety-stuff and so haven’t gotten around to blogging about the game until now, minutes until USC and Stanford kick off on the Farm in a nationally televised primetime Pac-12 conference game. So, a few hasty thoughts…

• Christian McCaffrey looked, well, like the Christian McCaffrey whom Stanford fans were pleased — and spoiled — to see game in and game out over the course of a record-setting 2015 season. Final line: 126 yards on 22 carries (average: 5.7 ypc), 40 yards on seven catches, 44 yards on two punt returns and a kickoff return, amounting to 210 total all-purpose yards. McCaffrey’s 35-yard run gave the Cardinal a 17-0 lead nearly halfway through the second quarter, and his 41-yard run with just over two minutes remaining in the game provided the final points in the Cardinal’s 26-13 victory after the offense started the second half by losing generated a lost fumble and punting four straight times punts in the second half.

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Contemplating the silver-screen impact of various science fiction masters, part 2

September 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 17, 2016

Yesterday, I took a quick survey of the number of feature films based on the work of several different science fiction grand masters, taking into account some of their TV adaptations as well. Now, I conclude that all of the stuff I wrote about adds up to…

Well, not very much, I guess.

The truth is that numerous factors make it difficult to adapt many of these novels and stories properly. For one thing, to be blunt, some of the science fiction grand masters’ writing just isn’t very good. Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, to single out two, were not exactly known for their lively characterizations.

Moreover, much of the grand masters’ work offers little in the way of cultural and sexual diversity. This is especially true of the oldest stories by the oldest writers. (A notable exception is Ursula K. Le Guin’s many explorations into radically different future societies.)

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Contemplating the silver-screen impact of various science fiction masters, part 1

September 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2016

In 1975, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presented its first ever Grand Master Award to the prolific Robert Heinlein, who ultimately authored 32 novels and 16 anthologies. The writer, who died in 1988, is probably best known for his novels Stranger in a Strange LandThe Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Starship TroopersLocus, a trade magazine for the science fiction, fantasy and horror publishing industry, named Heinlein its all-time best author in 1977, 1987, 1988, 1998 and 1999.

Stranger in a Strange Land, which was published in 1961, was a precursor to the sexual revolution and helped define the free-love hippie aesthetic; it also introduced the word grok (to understand profoundly and intuitively) into the language. Just two years ago, Heinlein was the subject of a 624-page authorized biography.

Heinlein was one of the indisputable legends of 20th-century science fiction, but he’s had surprisingly little influence on the world of movies. In the 35 years preceding his death, only a single Hollywood production was openly based on his work — 1953’s Project Moon Base. (That said, The Brain Eaters, released in 1958, was an uncredited adaptation of Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters; the author sued the producers and settled out of court, according to the invaluable Internet Movie Database.)

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The poison ivy foot post!

September 14, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 14, 2016

Friday, Sept. 2, brought hours and hours of rain to Durham thanks to the outer bands of Hurricane Hermine, which was then sweeping up the East Coast. I put on sneakers before going out that afternoon, which was a mistake — they were soaked after just a few minutes of walking.

My feet were cold and wet for much of the night, which I hate. They were also itchy. These sensations irritated me as I watched a mostly enjoyable Stanford football season-opening victory over visiting Kansas State.

That evening — or maybe it was the next one? — after a long day, I removed my socks and sneakers and starting rubbing foot cream on my dogs. As I did so, my fingers detected a bunch of small, evenly shaped and sized bumps near my left index toe.

What the heck…?

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Regional championships, Aug. 27, 2016: Finale

September 6, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 6, 2016

We pick up the action late in the afternoon of World Tavern Poker’s North Carolina Central East Regional Championships on Aug. 27, 2016. You can also read my accounts of the first part and the second part of this event. 

After I raked in my big pot, there were at least five tables left in the tournament, meaning that 45 or so players remained. That was good — we’d started with 26 overall, I believe — but there was plenty of work to be done before I could claim to have accomplished anything…

Most poker tournaments have an ebb and flow: You win a hand, or maybe a few hands, and then you go through a dead period in which either you lose a few chips or nothing much happens. I went through a dry spell, watching other people win and lose massive amounts of chips, while I waited for a hand worth playing. I entered a few pots, but nothing big, and none of them worked out in my favor.

Finally, not long after blinds went up to something intimidating — either 4,000–8,000 or 5,000–10,000 — I found myself sitting in the small blind with king-two off-suit, which is a lousy hand. (The website Holdem Tight ranks it 135th out of 169 possible starting hands.) Because blinds were so big, I considered sitting out. Instead, I decided to call.

One of the reasons I did was that my participation would make the hand three-handed; that is, there would be three players — myself, the big blind and a gentleman three or so seats to my right who had called.

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Regional championships, Aug. 27, 2016: Part 2

September 3, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 3, 2016

We pick up the action late in the afternoon of World Tavern Poker’s North Carolina Central East Regional Championships on Aug. 27, 2016. Click here for an account of the first part of the tournament

Finally, there was a (figurative) knock at the (metaphorical) door. I found myself on the button — that is, the dealer — with pocket fives. Few if any people had called the hand, and I don’t think that anyone had raised, suggesting that I had a superior hand relative to the other players. I raised and got a call from the woman immediately to my left, who had what seemed to be an immense stack.

The flop excited me, because it contained a five. That gave me three of a kind.

However, I was faced with a classic poker dilemma. In many hands, there is a tension between maximizing the amount of chips in the pot and actually winning the hand. If you pretend to have weak cards by betting small amounts, your opponent or opponents are likely to call your bets, thereby increasing the amount of chips in the pot. The flaw with this tack, alas, is that as more players see more community cards, their chances of having their hand improve rise. This means, of course, that your chances of maintaining the best hand decrease.

One can minimize the risk of losing a hand by betting big on it. This has two potential flaws, however. One is that you scare off opponents who are on a draw. That is, people who are hoping that the flop or the turn or the river will improve their hand will fold rather than calling your bet. You can win this way, but you won’t win as many chips as you would if opponents had called your smaller bets and you wound up with the strongest hand.

The other problem with betting big is that your opponent can call you and win, either because she or he started off ahead or because the community cards helped her or him. This can be true when you bet small, too, but at least in that case you can abandon the pot with relatively minimal losses.

At any rate, just by betting small enough that my opponent could see first the flop and then the turn, I was taking a risk. So when the turn came out— a three, I believe, which I didn’t perceive as causing me any potential trouble — I declared all in.

My foe called me right away, which surprised me. I showed my pocket fives. “I have three of a kind,” I said, somewhat tentatively.

“I have a straight,” she said gleefully, revealing the two and four of hearts. “And I need one card for a straight flush.”

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Regional championships, Aug. 27, 2016: Part 1

September 2, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 2, 2016

About two years ago, I wrote about my victory in a satellite tournament at a regional championship. I finished 34th out of 285 players in the actual main event, which was the best I’d finished in the regionals…

Until last weekend.

After yet another unremarkable performance in the satellite games (I placed in the top 20 once, at 13th, which yielded a thoroughly pedestrian 9,000 points), I arrived at the second-floor hotel ballroom a little after 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27. They organizers opened up a new table, No. 25, in what they call “the Pit” — the final three tables that would be used as the event approached its conclusion. I ended up sitting among several players I didn’t recognize and three I did. One of these familiar faces belonged to a fairly wild player, and I started salivating over the prospect of engaging this person in a one-on-one hand.

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