Archive for December, 2016

Stanford tops UNC, 25-23, in Sun Bowl nail-biter

December 31, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 31, 2016

Stanford football closed out its 2016 season with a down-to-the-wire 25-23 victory over the University of North Carolina in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Fittingly, the game played out like a revue of some of Stanford’s 2016 highlights and lowlights. Among the latter, the opening-series three-and-out struck a familiar chord, and the team’s inability to score a touchdown in five red-zone trips called to mind the Cardinal’s offensive futility for much of September and October.

The highlights included a few dynamic, if isolated, moments from the passing game as well as the elusive quickness that backup running back Bryce Love had flashed a few times throughout the season and the surprising toughness that he demonstrated when he got the start for an injured Christian McCaffrey in Stanford’s 17-10 win at Notre Dame.

In the end, the Stanford squad won the exact same way it had in the opening weeks of the season: Thanks to the contributions of a salty defense that stepped up when the offense faltered.

Speaking of McCaffrey, he was absent from this game, too, having declared his intention to enter the NFL draft after the Rice game and subsequently opted out of playing in the Sun Bowl. He had to feel good about that decision after not one but two Cardinal players sustained injuries that at least one former athlete blamed on the stadium’s artificial turf.

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Delaware Scrabble recap, 12/26/2016 (finale)

December 30, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 30, 2016

All of my games thus far in the Delaware event had been scheduled in advance by Dan, the tournament director. For the first seven rounds, we were playing round robin — that is, each of the eight players would face everyone else in the division once and exactly once.

The eighth and final game of the day, however, couldn’t be scheduled until the results from the first seven rounds were in. That’s because the eighth round was “king of the hill.” In this format, the top two players in the tournament standings face each other; the Nos. 3 and 4 players in the standings play each other; and so on down the line.

In this case, I was atop the standings with a 7-0 record and a plus-587 spread. The No. 2 player in the table was RB, my round-five opponent, whose only loss in seven games had been to me. She boasted an excellent spread of plus-675.

RB and I would play each other in the eighth and final round. If I won, I would be division champion with an undefeated 8-0 record. If she won, we would be tied at 7-1 apiece, but she would be champion by virtue of her superior spread.

In other words, my friends, the pressure was on me to continue to perform at a high level!

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Delaware Scrabble recap, 12/26/2016 (part 2)

December 30, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 30, 2016

I returned from lunch to face RB, the third seed in the division with a rating of 880. (I was the fifth seed, having begun the tournament with a rating of 810.) RB, going first, had a modest 77-74 lead after four turns.

Fireworks were about to erupt. She led off turn 5 with ErASERS/HOBS 69. I responded with ZONAS*/ZA/OM, a triple-double that had the 10-point Z occupying a triple-letter-score spot and the S taking a double-word-score space. All in all, this phony was worth a rather impressive 103 points.

(Zona, the membrane around a mammalian ovum, is a real word; however, the plural of zona is actually zonae. Those pesky Latinate words!)

But RB didn’t realize my error, so after five turns, I held a 177-146 lead. She (ahem) erased her deficit in turn 6 with KIF/KA/IS 34, but my GRUNT 14 was enough to put me back ahead, 203-180.

The game stayed close the rest of the way. The only big-point plays came in turn 11, when RB played FEW/EM/WO 31 and I replied with QI/IF 32. That left me with a 285-279 edge.

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Delaware Scrabble recap, 12/26/2016 (part 1)

December 30, 2016

Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 30, 2016

On Monday, Dec. 26, 2016, I did something that I’d never done before in my life: Played in a Scrabble tournament outside of the state of North Carolina.

My pal D— and I had decided to attend the last three days in a five-day holiday Scrabble event at a Delaware hotel located on an isolated piece of high ground amid the swamp that surrounds the New Castle airport and Interstate 95. Each day featured a single one-day tournament, split into two to four divisions of eight players apiece. On our first day, there were four divisions; D— played in Division C, while I was in Division D, featuring the lowest-ranked octet of players.

My opening game was against EM, a wiry older fellow and former New Yorker, like myself and a lot of other participants in the event. EM, going second, took a 111-78 lead in turn 3 when he played SEEDiNG/PLAINS 76, which included the 50-point “bingo bonus” a Scrabble player receives when she or he empties her or his rack.

But EM’s next two plays were negligible: TI 7 and an exchange of five tiles. (Trades don’t net a player any points.) Meanwhile, I had YA 21 and JAM 34 in turns 4 and 5, which actually put me ahead, 133-118. My sixth play, FEZ 41, gave me a 174-118 lead.

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Damien Chazelle’s ‘La La Land’ is an entertaining and engaging love letter to movies, jazz, Los Angeles and love itself

December 27, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 27, 2016

Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is an utterly charming romance about star-crossed lovers in Los Angeles.

She is Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress working as a barista at a movie studio lot and sharing an apartment with three other wannabe performers. He is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a.k.a. Seb, a free-wheeling pianist whose shabby apartment is stuffed with unopened boxes full of memorabilia that he intends to put into the jazz club he dreams of opening some day. (If the character’s last name was given in the picture, I don’t recall it.)

The couple meets cute several times before the relationship really gets going. We first meet the characters in standstill freeway traffic when Mia incurs Seb’s wrath by failing to notice that the road has cleared because she’s caught up in rehearsing lines for an audition.

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Trump, unchecked: The president-elect tilts hard right as his elevation to office approaches

December 17, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 17, 2016

On Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, unless something unprecedented occurs, the electoral college will officially designate Donald Trump Sr. the winner of the 2016 United States presidential election.

I expect this to happen, although it should be noted that an incredible number of things about this election have been unprecedented. For instance, Hillary Clinton was the first female presidential candidate to be nominated by a major American political party, and Trump was the candidate with the thinnest (read: a nonexistent) record of public or military service.

I’ve experienced a number of emotions since Trump’s election, including disbelief, disappointment, anger, resignation and sorrow. I also felt, for a time, something unexpected: hope.

Trump’s victory speech was unexpectedly magnanimous, given the harsh nature of his campaign. The man who during the second presidential debate had threatened to jail his opponent over missing emails from her tenure as secretary of state struck a gracious note early in the address that he delivered around 3 a.m. on the East Coast on Nov. 9:

Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country. I mean that very sincerely.

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Majoring in classics, minoring in murder? A handful of college students are united by dark secrets in Donna Tartt’s spell-binding 1992 debut, ‘The Secret History’

December 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 16, 2016

I first read The Secret History in the mid-1990s, a few years after its publication, and not long after I’d graduated from college. That makes it awfully tempting for me to compare and contrast myself with the narrator of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel.

Richard Papen is a classics scholar — literally a student of the language and literature of ancient Greece; I barely have any proficiency in any language other than English, but I’ve always been a bookish sort. The only child of a miserly gas station proprietor and a receptionist, Papen was raised in a fictitious small Silicon Valley community called Plano, which he dismisses as having “little of interest, less of beauty”; I grew up outside New York City, and while I too (perhaps unfairly) dismissed my suburban community as being bland and uninteresting, I was a frequent visitor to Manhattan’s diverse, lively and culture-filled precincts. He readily, if sometimes clumsily, lies about his background in order to keep himself on par with his glamorous college acquaintances; I never had the nerve to attempt such deception.

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‘The Hunger Games,’ Suzanne Collins’s hugely popular 2008 novel, challenges the reader’s conception of love and reality

December 14, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 14, 2016

If hearing or seeing the words The Hunger Games doesn’t spark at least a flicker of recognition in your mind, then you probably were not literate, conscious and residing in the United States for most of the years 2008 through 2015.

That first year, of course, was when American TV writer and young-adult novelist Suzanne Collins published The Hunger Games, her tale of a teenager in a post-apocalyptic United States who is essentially drafted as a competitor in a televised life-and-death battle of adolescents from across what used to be known as North America. The book and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were enormously successful, selling 4.3 million copies in 2010, the year the finale was published.

Book sales grew exponentially, reaching nearly 28 million copies by 2012, when a movie adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence was released. Three film sequels appeared in late November of the following three years. (The last book, rather notoriously, was split into two films.)

I’ve watched and enjoyed the first two movies, and I toyed with the idea of reading the books, but I never acted on the impulse until I saw a copy of The Hunger Games sitting on the small shelf of free books at Joe Van Gogh’s Broad Street store in Durham.

I can now report that the Hunger Games book is a lot like what I expected. Like the movie, the book is briskly paced and enjoyable. Collins’s novel feels more nuanced than the film adaptation because some of the story’s emotional beats develop more organically here.

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Recent Readings for Dec. 9, 2016

December 9, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 9, 2016

• “Trump has declined many intelligence briefings offered to him according to Senate aide.” Trump is meeting with plenty of potential political appointees and holding rallies as part of a “Thank you tour,” but he apparently doesn’t think intelligence should occupy very much of his time. Writes CBS News’s Rebecca Shabad: “Even during the campaign, there were reports that Trump was at odds with what intelligence officials briefed him on. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas[,] the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in late October that he told Mr. Trump that Russia was trying to influence the U.S. election through hacking, but he said Mr. Trump rejected that information.” As I tweeted (with a typo!), “It’s hard to escape the feeling that President-Elrct [sic] Donald Trump just isn’t interested in working hard.”

• “The Last Line Of Defense: Federal Bureaucrats Wait Nervously For Donald Trump.” Jessica Schulberg and Amanda Terkel take a deep dive into the anxieties of several (anonymous) federal employees who “often have decades of experience and institutional knowledge that the incoming administration will need to ensure that the federal government doesn’t fall apart under the leadership of new, sometimes inexperienced, political appointees.”

“[W]e’re worried that our president might actually turn out be to a fascist,” one Department of Labor employee says. A worker at the Defense Intelligence Agency says colleagues wonder, “Am I going to be an unwitting enabler of war crimes under this administration?” Says a Democrat in the Environmental Protection Agency (about which see below), “I would take George W. Bush any day over this.”

• “What’s Pushing Down U.S. Life Expectancy?” Dina Fine Maron over at Scientific American interviews Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, over newly released 2015 data. An uptick in flu cases may have had a widespread effect, Anderson explains: “The flu can impact other causes of death, and it can cause people with existing chronic conditions to die from those conditions. So someone with heart disease who gets the flu, that flu can precipitate a heart attack, or exacerbate existing chronic lung disease or many other things. For people who are very ill and may be hanging on, they can die sooner than they may have otherwise.” Anderson also notes that accidental suffocation, both in bed and otherwise, may be responsible for an increase in infant mortality.

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It was a dark and stormy week: Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ is a masterful, influential whodunnit

December 7, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 7, 2016

It is early August in 1939 or thereabouts. Ten men and women of varying ages and backgrounds have gathered on Soldier Island, an isolated point of land about a mile off the coast of Devon, England. They will soon discover that each person present is united by a grisly secret — and moreover that they’ve been assembled by someone with malevolent intent. As a storm closes in, cutting off the uneasy inhabitants, members are killed, one by one. With their numbers dwindling, and the bonds of trust among the party becoming ever more frayed, the survivors reach an even more unnerving realization: The killer is someone among them…

This, of course, is the plot of Agatha Christie’s classic 1939 murder mystery, available now as And Then There Were None but first published in the United States as Ten Little Indians. The title under which the book was originally published in Britain included a vicious racial slur that is rarely if ever used in polite company. Its name was taken from a post-Civil War minstrel song, the lyrics of which inform the plot of and were quoted in Christie’s book.

I had neither read this book nor seen any of the various TV or film adaptations of it until just this past week. (I am, I must confess, unfamiliar with all of Christie’s work.) I was visiting some friends in Virginia when the book happened to come up in conversation; I prevented my friends from naming the killer, announcing that I hadn’t actually read the book (and also disclosing the original title). They offered to loan me a paperback copy — a 2011 reprint that refers to “soldiers” rather than “Indians” or this notorious epithet — and here we are.

Some consider And Then There Were None, as I shall call it, to be Christie’s masterpiece; fans named it her most popular book in a poll conducted in 2015 to mark the 125th anniversary of the British writer’s birth. Having now read the book, it’s blindingly obvious that myriad works are descended from Christie’s tale.

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Stephen Goldin constructs an amiable but rather forgettable ‘Trek to Madworld’ in his 1979 original ‘Star Trek’ novel

December 3, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 3, 2016

I initially couldn’t remember how I acquired Bantam’s February 1998 reissue of Trek to Madworld, a 1979 Star Trek novel by Stephen Goldin. After thinking about it for a while, I decided that the book must have been mailed to me gratis by the publisher thanks to my stint as books columnist for the short-lived periodical Sci-Fi Invasion!

I certainly don’t remember reading the book, which is pleasantly mediocre, and which was one of a handful of original Star Trek novels that helped maintain the franchise’s popularity between the cancellation of Gene Roddenberry’s pioneering TV series in 1969 and the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

How did I obtain a copy of Trek to Madworld? Well, the story isn’t very interesting. Here it is:

I visited Ye Olde Family Homestead for Thanksgiving. A day or two before I was to return to North Carolina, I was sitting on the couch in the living room. There’s a free-standing bookcase on the south wall; the north wall is completely lined by built-in bookshelves. I happened to look south (that is, to my right) and for some reason noticed three Star Trek books on a lower shelf. I decided that I should read one of them; as to which got chosen, well, need I say any more?

The book opens as the U.S.S. Enterprise embarks on a routine mission: Ferrying legendary explorer Kostas Spyroukis and his daughter, Metika Spyroukis, back home to Epsilon Delta 4 from the conference world of Babel, where they had unsuccessfully petitioned the Council to admit their colony as a full member of the United Federation of Planets.

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