Archive for February, 2017

Intriguing independent science fiction suspense movie ‘Infini’ is a minor treat for genre fans

February 28, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 28, 2017

The 2015 science fiction suspense movie Infini borrows plenty of concepts from superior movies, among them Invasion of the Body SnatchersSolaris and Aliens. But although this independent film is obscure, having been made in Australia on a minuscule budget, it’s executed well enough to make it worthwhile viewing for science-fiction aficionados.

Most of the movie takes place on an abandoned mining base on Infini, the farthest-flung outpost in the galaxy. A few hundred years into the future, when members of Infini’s skeleton crew go insane and program a deadly cargo to be sent to Earth, troops are teleported (“slipstreamed,” in the movie’s parlance) to the location to shut down the shipment. But the first wave of responders quickly go insane, and an elite search-and-rescue team led by Capt. Seet Johanson (Kevin Copeland) is summoned to clean up the fiasco.

The group encounters the only known survivor of the disaster, a security specialist named Whit Carmichael. The frazzled Carmichael (Daniel MacPherson) claims that he shut down the base’s heating system during the carnage, thereby leaving most of it in a deep freeze as crazed personnel slaughtered one another. He agrees to help his would-be rescuers disable the cargo transport, but during the process many of the team members are exposed to the same toxic biological material that plunged earlier visitors into madness.

The rest of the story consists of Carmichael’s increasingly frantic efforts to evade the armed psychotics who are hunting him (and each other) while counting down the hours until he can teleport back to Earth.

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Some notes about my conversations with myself

February 26, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 26, 2017

I was thinking the other day about my history of talking to myself.

I’m not sure just how I picked up the habit, although I definitely was doing it in elementary school. My monologues were likely motivated by a variety of factors: I think at least one of my parents used to mutter to himself; it was surely something that characters did at least occasionally in the cartoons and TV shows that I watched; and it sort of mimicked the way that characters’ thoughts were often portrayed in the books I’d read.

At some point in high school or college, I realized that most other people perceived my talking to myself as a sign that I was mentally defective in some way. Since this was having the opposite of the intended effect — I fancied that talking to myself made me seem intelligent or important somehow — I made a conscious effort to cut back on these one-sided conversations.

I still do it, but not nearly as often as I once did. For the past several years, I’ve tended give myself short pep talks while showering. (I think I also sometimes do it when I’m playing Scrabble in person.) But what I realized recently was that the nature of these pep talks — or perhaps more accurately, the way I regard these pep talks — has changed.

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Fiction vs. reality: On triggering — or countering — ‘The Pence Contingency’

February 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 22, 2017

Ever since November’s election, it’s been hard to shake the feeling that we’re living in an airport-bookstore thriller. I can just envision the jacket copy for this beach read:

An erratic businessman has been elected to the White House. Ultra-wealthy Americans, Washington bureaucrats and foreign governments plot how to implement their divergent agendas while distancing themselves from the damage that the unpredictable president is doing to the social, political and international institutions that have maintained domestic and global stability ever since the end of the Cold War. But a small faction of fanatical conservative elites are using the conflict and chaos as cover for a secret plan that could leave America under their direct control for years to come…

The plot almost writes itself. Vladimir Putin and his top advisors subtly push the president to disavow America’s NATO commitments; China, Iran and various fundamentalist terrorist groups — of both the radical Islamic and radical Christian varieties — scheme to undermine confidence in America’s ability to maintain peace and security; the upper crust and their conservative allies work to reduce the 1 percent’s tax burden while cutting the safety net and other social services; a medley of Fox News broadcasters and Republican governors, administrators and legislators promote and enact reforms that allow conservative Christians to punish unmarried women for having sex and homosexuals and non-Christians for reminding anyone of their existence.

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Late-bird event, games 4–5, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 16, 2017

February 18, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 18, 2017

The fourth game of the 2017 Duke PBMT late-bird tournament turned out to be much more exciting than the third. My foe was TS, whom I’d beaten in the 2016 Duke PBMT late bird tournament and in the April 2016 mall tournament.

We saw a lot of early scoring: In turn 1, TS hooked an S onto my INIA to make a 66-point bingo, ROUTERs/INIAs*. In turn 3, I put the X on a double-word-score bonus for MIX/OX, a 42-point play. And in turn 4, LOOSING/DAG scored me 65 points. (Dag means a hanging end or shred or matted or manure-coated wool.) But TS’s response, VIEW/LI/OE/OW, scored 31 points and left him with a modest 137-135 lead.

Here I ran into a spot of trouble. My rack entering turn 5 was AEGHINS, which can’t be arranged into a seven-letter word. Since AEGINS is a great Scrabble “stem,” I played the H on a triple-letter-score space to make HOW 17, only to be rewarded by drawing…the second H. This time, I played AH/AT/HE for 19 points.

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Late-bird event, games 1–3, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 16, 2017

February 17, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 17, 2017

After finishing third in the two-day main event, I played in the five-game “late bird” event that closed out the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament.

My first opponent was very familiar: J—, whom I’d played three times on Sunday, losing twice, including a remarkable game that he’d opened with four bingos in his first five turns.

Playing second, I took a 100-50 lead after three turns thanks to an 89-point bingo, PATTIES/NUT, which touched on two double-word-score bonuses at once. J— soon got the lead back by playing TWEEN 36 and WARN/WO/AG 31 in turns 4 and 5. Then he claimed a 201-146 lead midway through turn 7 by playing FOILERS*/SEATING, a phony 70-point bingo.

(That rack, EFILORS, doesn’t make any seven-letter bingos, but it can be combined with a blank to make six valid eight-letter ones: FLOSSIER, FOLKSIER, FORESAIL, FRIJOLES, PROFILES and TREFOILS.)

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Games 13 through 16, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 15, 2017

February 16, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 16, 2017

When Sunday’s late session got under way, with game 13, I faced EM for the third time in the tournament and the second time in three games. I took an early lead in turn 2 with SHITTY/WAIFS 46 but fell behind two turns later when I failed to challenge my opponent’s phony 26-point play, FARGO*.

EM also had a nice fifth move, JOY/OAT/YA 37. But I reclaimed the lead that turn, 123-114, with ZIGS, exploiting a double-letter-score/double-word-score combo to generate 48 points.

Then we went into a mutual power outage. From turns 6 through 11, neither of us had a play worth more than 29 points. (That was my HUED/HE.) The score was 229-206 in my favor at that moment.

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Games 9 through 12, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 15, 2017

February 15, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 15, 2017

I began Sunday as the leader in the lower division, but I was annoyed. My failure to spot the word DIAPERS on my rack of ADEIPRS in Saturday’s final game ate at me.

Still, there was nothing to be done about it. So I geared up for my ninth-round game against J—, the excellent local player whom I’d beaten three times in five tournament meetings.

J—, playing first, took a lead going out of the gate, and I never caught up. Over the first nine turns, J— had a pair of 30-pointers (JOE/ER 32 and YEW/ITCHY 30) and a bingo, CUrATES/CAT 65. My highest-scoring word over that span was PRIDE 27 in turn 9; I trailed, 255-172, following that play.

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Games 5 through 8, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 14, 2017

February 14, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 14, 2017

Following Saturday’s lunch break, my fifth game matched me against R—, the fellow who had handed me my only defeat in the tournament that I’d won the previous spring.

I took a 68-29 lead after three turns, largely thanks to WROTE/EVENT 32, which used the triple-word-score bonus at top row–center column. R— would tie the score, 89-89, with ZIG/ADZ 52, but that wouldn’t last.

In turn 6, playing second, I converted AABHRS? into BAsHARS*/BI/AN, an 82-point bingo. I was hoping, incorrectly, that bashar was some kind of title of a ruler; since R— did not challenge, the play stood, giving me a 179-97 advantage.

That rack makes three valid words, all plurals and all unknown to me: BHARALS (a goatlike mammal), BRAHMAS (the Hindu god of creation, or the foundation for all being in Hinduism) and SAMBHARS (a type of deer).

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Games 1 through 4, Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament, Jan. 14, 2017

February 13, 2017

By Miotthew E. Milliken
Feb. 13, 2017

My opening game in the main event of the seventh annual Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program benefit Scrabble tournament was against BC, a clever local youngster who had never before participated in an official tournament. In turn 2, playing first, BC jumped out to an 86-25 lead by putting down ZEE/ZA/EL/EF, a 70-point move thanks to his placement of the Z on a triple-letter-score spot. I closed the gap a bit with my second move, LONER/YE/AR 14, but that still left me trailing, 86-39.

I started the game with a blank and drew an X after my first move, but wasn’t able to outpoint my first play (HALF/HM 25) until the sixth turn. That was when I played DRIP/PLUCK for 42 points, a prime example of a triple-word-score plus double-letter-score bonus combination. I drew DRST after that play, which left me with a rack of EORSTX? entering turn 7.

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A motley band of raiders defies an Empire in the unexpectedly timely new ‘Star Wars’ movie, ‘Rogue One’

February 11, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 11, 2016

Gareth Edwards’s December 2016 blockbuster, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is a film very much set in the Star Wars universe but not quite of that fictional realm.

The movie can be watched independently of any other Star Wars feature, and arguably might be more enjoyable that way. Nonetheless, it serves as a sort of prequel to the very first Star Wars film, the 1977 movie retroactively retitled Star Wars: A New Hope, to the point that Rogue One ends shortly before the action of George Lucas’s original blockbuster commences. The McGuffin of the new release is the Death Star, the top-secret planet-destroying super-weapon central to A New Hope — or perhaps more accurately the Death Star’s engineering specifications, which the protagonists must discover and help learn how to destroy.

Edwards’s movie features a few characters from A New Hope, notably the villains Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (using the digitally reconditioned face of the late Peter Cushing) and the robots C-3PO and R2-D2, mostly in brief cameos, as well as a handful of settings from the earlier picture.

But the main action in Rogue One involves the awkwardly named Jyn Erso. Her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), was once a lead engineer for the Death Star before he grew disgusted with the totalitarian Galactic Empire and fled to a remote farm world with his wife and child.

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Madness at the turn of the millennium: Salman Rushdie’s ‘Fury’ chronicles a disaffected writer’s experiences in New York and abroad

February 6, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 6, 2017

New York City at the turn of the millennium, writer Salman Rushdie not unreasonably posited in his 2001 novel Fury, was full of motion and spectacle. The opening paragraph gets right to business:

Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a gold age. Outside his window a long, humid summer, the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money. Rents and property values had never been higher, and in the garment industry it was widely held that fashion had never been so fashionable. New restaurants opened every hour. Stores, dealerships, galleries struggled to satisfy the skyrocketing demand for ever more recherché produce: limited-edition olive oils, three-hundred-dollar corkscrews, customized Humvees, the latest anti-virus software, escort services featuring contortionists and twins, video installations, outsider art, featherlight shawls made from the chin-fluff of extinct mountain goats. So many people were doing up their apartments that supplies of high-grade fixtures and fittings were at a premium. There were waiting lists for baths, doorknobs, imported hardwoods, antiqued fireplaces, bidets, marble slabs. In spite of the recent falls in the value of the Nasdaq index and the value of Amazon stock, the new technology had the city by the ears: the talk was still of start-ups, IPOs, interactivity, the unimaginable future that had just begun to begin. The future was a casino, and everyone was gambling, and everyone expected to win.

The opening is somewhat misleading, however. Although Fury immediately and vividly captures the frenzy that was New York circa 1998–2001, the novel is quite coy about revealing many of the details of the life of its protagonist. This is, of course, an intentional choice by Rushdie: Solanka has deliberately suppressed major episodes from his childhood, to the point where repressed trauma threatens to destroy his entire life. Moreover, the character suffers repeated blackouts, prompting him to wonder whether he may have committed a series of vicious fatal assaults on wealthy young women that command the full attention of the tabloids.

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Carry-on contraband: Three recent flights and my (completely avoidable) trouble in scanner-land

February 4, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 4, 2017

I flew from the New York metropolitan area to Raleigh-Durham International Airport on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 3 — a one-way trip that I made for reasons that I may eventually get into in another blog post.

I arrived at the airport in plenty of time to make my flight — or so I thought. While using the automatic kiosk, I opted against checking my larger bag because of the $25 fee. After printing my boarding pass, I paused to help a foreign woman attach a luggage tag to her bag and got on the line that would bring me to a security checkpoint.

The line behind me was quickly growing, while the queue ahead of me moved extremely slowly — an alarming combination. As the minutes slowly passed, I began to worry about getting to the plane.

My fears were exacerbated when my roller bag was flagged by security personnel as they put it through the scanner. After a short delay when two Transportation Security Administration employees chatted with one another, one of them asked me sharply what illicit item I had in my bag. I said, honestly, that I did not know.

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Divert, distort, distract: An early controversy sets the tone for Trump’s reign

February 1, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 1, 2017

As the ghastly mess that was the drafting and rollout of the new executive order limiting the entry of refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations became fully apparent over the weekend, I wondered about this episode’s implications for the remaining 207 weeks of President Trump’s administration.

As noted Monday afternoon, the incompetence displayed by the newly installed executive and his crew was deeply troubling. But that wasn’t the only striking thing about the incident; indeed, I think many of the patterns that we saw over the past few days will recur time and again over the coming three years, 11 months and change.

Consider the following:

The administration bypassed normal government operating procedures. As discussed yesterday, a number of lawyers and agencies weren’t consulted about the travel ban. Trump, a business executive unused to working within governmental constraints, loves to make his own rules, even when he’s been warned that there are very good reasons for following established procedure.

The administration got help from congressional employees while keeping Republican lawmakers in the dark. On Monday evening, Politico reported that top Trump aides had recruited senior congressional staffers to help draft the order without informing any actual members of Congress; indeed, the staffers were required to sign nondisclosure agreements. Competent, transparent administrations don’t work that way; but of course, Trump’s crew has not yet developed a feel nor show an inclination for working conventionally and has never displayed any desire to be transparent.

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