Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Open Apology to Fun Publications

One of the more difficult lessons of life to learn is how to be careful with one's words. This is especially true in a forum such as an internet blog. Words that may have been written with one intention often take on a life of their own, and before you know it, damage has been done that cannot be easily fixed.

Several months ago, I posted an "Open Letter" to Fun Publications, the group that runs the official Transformers Collectors Club and its corresponding convention, BotCon. I sent this letter to Brian Savage, the owner of FP, and he allowed me to paraphrase (but not quote directly) his responses. It has always been my hope that I have done so accurately, as while there are some real issues that I have had with how the club has been run, I wish to be constructive in how I go about seeking change.

I fear that I have not been so constructive with my recent "re-use" of these posts in a thread on the 2005 Boards. Yesterday, in the middle of a long-running thread that started out by announcing the new club "freebie," the discussion turned to the general frustration at having what appears to be a substantial amount of the money paid for membership in the club going toward the printing of Master Collector, which many (if not most) club members have found to be generally useless. Because someone had mentioned a suggestion to FP to offer a membership option without MC (about post #145), I decided that it was appropriate to re-post links to my blog entries making this very suggestion, and the response I had gotten to that idea at the time (post #150).

I did not anticipate (but should have) the discussion that would follow, where old complaints of FP failing to listen to its members started up anew, accompanied this time by accusations of an "FP conspiracy" that shipping rates were inflated to allow FP to skim money from club members (an accusation I've never made). When the forum moderator saw that the already-too-long thread was just repeating old arguments, he locked the thread from further discussion. Between the time that I had posted my blog links and come back to read the responses the following morning, the thread had grown with three more pages of this kind of thing, and I had no chance to clarify my intentions before the thread was locked.

While I still believe that there are some legitimate constructive complaints in my original posts, simply posting those two links without additional comment gave the impression that I have not seen some of the positive developments that have happened in the club since November. The club forums are up and running now. While they do not get the traffic that I would wish to see on them, they have provided a much closer link between club members and some of the leadership (if not with Brian Savage himself, who is only able to post every few weeks). While issues remain, I have a much stronger sense that club members are being heard, and I have higher hopes now than I did in November that positive changes can be made.

I find myself in an often awkward position when it comes to the club. I have felt free to voice my concerns, both publicly and directly to the club leadership. I expect that this has made me something of a gadfly, though I have felt generally welcome on the forums, and do not feel "brushed off" now as I often did a few months ago. I have also made serious attempts to defend the club when I feel that complaints on online forums have been unreasonable. (For example, see this post from earlier in the same thread, and this one from the Allspark.) I have also been actively involved in a thread on the club forums (not linked directly, since it requires a member password) seeking out ways to bring "game show" events along the lines of Jeopardy! and Family Feud to BotCon (whether or not I can attend myself), and have high hopes that my contributions can be helpful towards improving the convention.

For my part in fostering the continuing attitude of mistrust and anger at the Transformers Collectors' Club in general, and Fun Publications and Brian Savage in particular, I express my sincere apologies. It is my hope that we can continue to constructively discuss the ways in which the club can become all that it has the potential to be.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Remembering Don Knotts

I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of comedy legend Don Knotts this past weekend. As I grow older, it is inevitable that many of the celebrities I enjoyed as a child will die. But not since the passing of Fred Rogers three years ago (an event likewise brought to my remembrance this weekend on the Motley Fool radio show) was I so saddened by the loss of someone I've never met.

Whether through his signature role of Barney Fife or through his many movies (especially in the 1970s), Don Knotts was a persistent face on my television screen while I was growing up, providing many hours of enjoyment and fun. I cannot begin to adequately reflect on the contributions that Knotts has given to the American television landscape, but would encourage you to read these reflections by Steve Beverly of tvgameshows.net.

I decided to mark the occasion by watching several classic episodes of the Andy Griffith show. Knotts will live forever in reruns.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Transformers Breaking News!

Announced just within the past half-hour or so, the new Transformers Official Fan Club free figure. If you want to get one just for being a member of the club, you need to join (or renew, if appropriate) by March 15th. After that, you'll have to pay for it.

My two cents? I think it looks rather nice.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

American Evangelism

After a brief hiatus, Slacktivist has written another of his infamous "Left Behind" commentaries. This week, he spends a fair amount of time decrying the American Christian subculture's attitude toward evangelism.
...it is not "one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread," but rather one fat man trying to convince another fat man that he's a beggar in order to close the sale on another loaf.
This is a criticism I've often had myself about many Evangelicals I've known (although Slacktivist states it more eloquently). Contrary to what some Christians say, there really isn't hardly anyone in our culture that "hasn't heard" the Christian message. Yet many Christians persist in trying to tell their "unsaved" friends about the dangers of sin and hell in well-meaning (but generally futile) attempts to get them to convert. They try to convince their friend that their sin is a problem, because it is only after the problem has been recognized that someone might be willing to look at the solution to that problem (in this case, becoming a Christian).

There are at least a couple of problems with this tactic: 1) Many non-Christians don't define their behaviors as "sin" and/or see nothing wrong with continuing to behave as they've always done. After all, it's worked well for them so far, right? 2) While some non-Christians may understand what Christians mean by "sin," and while they might possibly even agree that the behavior is self-destructive, they see the "solution" as at least as bad as the "problem." After all, why join a group of people who will shame you for something you already know is bad? That's just adding to the pain, which is certainly not what these people need.

Slacktivist suggests that while Christians do have an imperative to evangelize, we've missed the point. He quotes what we Evangelicals often refer to as the "Great Commission": "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20) There's no imperative to scare people into heaven here. No mention of "hell" in this passage. Rather, by "obeying everything" Jesus commands us as believers, we are to live lives of hospitality. We feed the poor, visit those in prison, care for the widows and orphans, etc. And make no mistake, American Evangelicals have a lousy track record when it comes to caring for these whom God commanded us to love. We may use the language of "love," but we don't seem to really know what it means.

People should be able to look at the lives that we live, and want to live as we do. Instead, we're rightly mocked for telling non-believers that they have to follow a strict list of "thou shalt nots" in order to avoid an eternal punishment they may not even believe exists in the first place! Why should the non-believer listen to us?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

So I'm not the only one!

My wife loves Starbucks coffee. Not being a coffee-drinker myself, I admit that it's a bit hard to relate to this. Not only do I wonder why someone would want to pay 2-to-3 times as much money as normal for a cup of coffee, but I wonder about Starbucks' nomenclature for drink sizes. The smallest possible size is called "Tall," the medium size is "Grande," and the largest size is "Venti."

When we were on our honeymoon, we stopped by a coffee shop (decidedly not Starbucks!) in Vancouver that had an old Doonesbury comic posted. It complained that these drink-size names were "misleading, counterintuitive, and pretentious," respectively. We both thought this was one of the truer statements ever said about the odd size names.

I think Burger King's doing Doonesbury one better with its current line of "Joe" coffee. Among its in-store advertisements is the following: "Available in three easy-to-pronouce sizes: Small, Medium, and Large."

Gotta love truth in advertising!

Monday, February 13, 2006

"But What Have You Done Lately?"

It recently came to my attention that I have not updated my resume in nearly four years, and so it seemed a good idea to pull open the file and bring some things up to date. While doing so, a singular fact struck me--While I've been able to cite some reasonably impressive achievements, many of these were while I was in college, which was 10 years ago! My achievments since then seem (at least to me) far more mundane, and even some of those are increasingly distant in the past.

Thankfully, I'm not in a place where I have to look for a new job immediately, but it seems to me that I may want to rethink what my resume looks like for whenever I do need it again. Most potential employers won't really care about stuff that I did over a decade ago, no matter how impressive it looks....

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity: Part III

The last part of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity. I welcome any comments.

NARRATOR: Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Coast of United States lies a small, unregarded little church.

If one traveled from this church at a distance of roughly seven miles, one would find an utterly insignificant little green-colored seminary whose denizens are so amazingly primitive that they still think that double predestination is a pretty neat idea.

This seminary has, or rather had, a problem, which was this: most of the people that went there were unhappy pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because it was the utter absence of these small green pieces of paper which tended to cause the unhappiness in the first place.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones who considered themselves predestined.

Eventually, God apparently raptured a significant portion of the seminary’s student population to heaven, effectively ending their concern over the small bits of paper forever. This left no viable opposition to the building of the new 410 bypass right through the center of the seminary property, causing the seminary to be shut down, and forcing those who remained to take their problems elsewhere.

Two of those who remained, students Artie Kent and Ford Prophet, have since embarked on a journey to write The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Christianity, which they hope to better enable the remaining unsaved population to come to know Jesus Christ, whereby they, too, would have their problems solved.

Arthur and Ford now find themselves at the relocated offices of Evergreen Seminary's School of Psychology, where they find former students attempting to solve some problems of their own.

STUDENT 1: Now tell me, are you experiencing feelings of loss and betrayal?

STUDENT 2: (surprised) Why, yes!

STUDENT 1: Do you feel as though something has been taken away from you?

STUDENT 2: (even more amazed) Yes! That’s it exactly!

FORD (to Artie, but loud enough for others to hear): Well, of course she does. Her school is buried under a pile of rubble!

STUDENT 1: (a bit annoyed) Can we help you?

FORD: Yes, I think you can! You see, my friend and I are doing research for this book, you see, and….

STUDENT 1: (excited) Oh! Research! Oh, I’m sure we’d love to help!

FORD: … and we’re trying to work out how best to communicate Christianity to the average person.

STUDENT 1: What do you mean by “average?” We would need to have the term carefully quantified in order to ascertain reliable results.

FORD: (obviously not expecting this)…. Well, you know, “average,” just like… Artie, help me out here.

ARTIE: Well, you know, “normal.” Just like everybody else.

STUDENT 1: (laughs) Oh, I’m afraid I’ll still have to ask you to be more specific. Obviously, we’re not all a bunch of clones walking around.

ARTIE: Oh, I see your point…. Well, how about “not unusually different.”

STUDENT 1: Surely, you’ve been at Evergreen long enough to know that we value our differences.

(egg timer sound goes off.)

STUDENT 2: Oh! Time’s up! My turn! (Students 1 and 2 switch places)

STUDENT 2 (to Student 1): Now tell me about this dream you had about the walls crashing down all around you.

FORD: What a minute! Who’s treating who?

STUDENT 2: Oh, we’re treating each other. We’ve all had to deal with the loss of the seminary, and so we’re working through each other’s trauma over the experience.

STUDENT 1: We’re wounded healers.

NARRATOR: The Hitchhiker’s Guide says that a “wounded healer” is any person in any healing profession that has had to struggle with many of the very same problems that the person being healed has come to the professional for help in dealing with. The term is most often used for professionals in the mental heath disciplines, due to the high number of such professionals that appear to come from broken homes or have otherwise painful backgrounds. The Hitchhiker’s Guide hastens to add that this phenomenon is only in apparent disproportion to the rest of society due to the fact that mental health professionals are aware of their issues, while the large majority of humanity simply stumbles along in total ignorance of the monstrous problems that practically everybody, in fact, possesses.

(PROTESTER ONE comes onstage, dressed now in business attire, and walks up to the two Psych students. Artie and Ford are visibly stunned.)

PROTESTER ONE: Excuse me, I’m here for my 4:30 appointment.

ARTIE: But, but, you’re the protester I talked to before the Rapture!

PROTESTER ONE: Rapture? What are you talking about?

ARTIE: Are you, or are you not, the same student protester I spoke to before the construction crews demolished the seminary?


ARTIE (turns to Ford): And did I, or did I not, find protest signs and a bunch of clothes in a pile on the ground, EMPTY, when you and I met?

FORD: Well, of course.

PROTESTER ONE: And you think that I was raptured? (laughts) Wow, you need to read your dispensational theology a bit more! No, I was simply hired by the developers to handle public relations!

ARTIE: Say what?

PROTESTER ONE: Well, they were impressed at how well we were doing, and asked us if we’d rather work for them instead of against them. Paid considerably better than a seminarian’s salary, let me tell you!

ARTIE: (flabbergasted) But why did you leave your signs, and ALL YOUR CLOTHES, right there, in the middle of the road?

PROTESTER ONE: Well, we wouldn’t been very good public relations consultants in t-shirts and slacks, would we? And if we were carrying around signs that accused the developers of working against the will of God, that would be rather counter-productive to good PR work, wouldn’t it?

FORD: (interrupting) So, you mean to tell me, that your values, your convictions, your dedication to the work of Evergreen Seminary, all meant nothing compared to a big paycheck? You simply abandoned everything to work for the big corporations?

PROTESTER ONE: Well, actually, I’m rather conflicted about it. That’s why I’m here. (turns to Psych student) I’d like to speak to someone about my deep-seated feelings of guilt.

STUDENT 1: Of course, if you would just join us this way…. (Both Psych students and protestor head off stage, leaving Artie and Ford alone.)

ARTIE: I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. Does no one have any personal integrity anymore?

FORD: Well, look at it this way. Perhaps the Rapture hasn’t happened yet. But there’s still a need to tell people about God. And clearly the old methods haven’t worked. What do you say? Wanna join me in writing the most important book ever written?

ARTIE: After the Bible!

FORD: (starts walking off stage) Yes, yes, of course. The Bible will always be the most important book ever written. But have you ever looked at that thing? Someone’s still got to interpret it. I mean, all that stuff about prophecy, commands against cutting your hair, exhortations to stone children.... It’s no wonder we’ve got so many competing denominations out there! Now, what I think we need…. (fades as Ford and Artie head off stage)

NARRATOR: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Christianity was written by B-W of Transforming Seminarian, and features whatever actors you wish to imagine in the roles, with the provision that the voice of the Narrator must be understood to be read with a British accent at all times. If you have failed to imagine such a voice in your reading of the script thus far, you are therefore required to go back to the beginning, and start again.

You may now return your seats to their full and upright position, and the remainder of your journey through life will proceed without interruption.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity: Part II

A word is in order about this part: During the "Guide entries" (the "NARRATOR" part), I had intended to create PowerPoint visuals to accompany the entries. For most of these, the visuals would have been incidental, and not particularly worth detailing in the script. However, during one of the entries in this installment, it seemed more important. So I have accompanied the appropriate entry with a couple of pictures that you can see alongside the narration at the appropriate part, and hyperlinks for some of the extras as they come up. I hope that the visuals add to the humor of that section.

And now, Part II of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity, by B-W of Transforming Seminarian.

NARRATOR: The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very happy and been widely regarded as a good move.

Many cultures believe that it was created by some sort of god, although the Christian concept of a single supreme being is by no means shared by all of them.

As multitudinous as the explanations for the Universe’s creation are the theories of how the Universe will end. Even among Christians, there is widespread disagreement on this. Many Christians, for example, believe in a concept known as “the Rapture,” whereby the faithful are taken away from Earth to join God in heaven before the final end comes to the poor saps left behind on the planet below. While some Christians scoff at this interpretation of the end, this is exactly what seems to have occurred to a group of student protestors with whom Artie Kent had a conversation only a few hours ago. Despite that fact that they are Christians themselves, Artie and his friend Ford Prophet have reasoned that God must have left some believers behind to tell the remaining non-Christian population that the end is coming soon, and so have started writing The Hitchhikers’ Guide to Christianity, with which they hope to reach the masses.

Having recently escaped the destruction of Evergreen Theological Seminary to make way for the new 410 bypass, Artie and Ford come upon the former seminary bookstore, which is beginning to make changes in light of recent events.

(Artie and Ford enter from stage right. They arrive to meet a worker standing behind a cash register on stage left.)

BOOKSTORE WORKER: Welcome to Evergreen Family Booksellers. How may I help you today?

FORD: I’m not sure. I’m surprised to see that the bookstore is still here. I’d have thought it would be demolished with the rest of the seminary.

BOOKSTORE WORKER: The benefit of being on the other side of the street, I guess. Of course, since we won’t have so many students coming by, anymore, we have to become a more conventional Christian bookstore.

ARTIE: I see you have the complete set of “Left Behind” books on your shelves.

BOOKSTORE WORKER: Well, as the number one selling series of Christian literature on the market, we’d be pretty foolish not to carry them. We’re also looking to carry the complete set of “Left Behind” videos, compact discs, computer software, children’s literature and study guides.

FORD: And where are all the textbooks?

BOOKSTORE WORKER: They’ve been moved to the clearance section. Pretty much no one buys the academic books these days. Most Christian book-buyers prefer to have all that intellectual stuff done for them, and so we’re just looking to carry “Left Behind” books and Thomas Kinkade posters. Our new motto is: “Don’t worry, you won’t have to think about a thing!”

ARTIE: How about your Evangelism section?

BOOKSTORE WORKER: That’s mostly filled with extra copies of the “Left Behind” books. But we have a few other items as well. As a matter of fact… (Ducks under register to get Bumper fish) Would you like a Bumper fish?

NARRATOR: The Bumper fish is probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It is a small plastic outline of a fish affixed with adhesive on one side, intended to be sold in Christian bookstores and placed on the bumper of the buyer’s automobile. The practical upshot of this is that if you stick a Bumper fish on your car you can instantly tell anyone that you are a Christian in any language.

This led to the creation of the Darwin fish, a similar outline of a fish with legs added, intended to make fun of the fundamentalist Christian rejection of the theory of evolution. The Darwin fish led, in turn, to the creation of the “Truth Fish”: a Bumper fish emblazoned with the word TRUTH in large capital letters, depicted as eating a Darwin fish. This led to the Reality Bites fish, (a Darwin fish eating a standard Bumper fish).

Other fish have been created following this pattern, in what has commonly been called the “Fish Wars,” giving us the Cat fish, the Tuna fish, the Yoda fish, the Science fish, the Alien fish, and the “Fish N Chips” fish, among many, many others.

Most leading theologians lament this misuse of one of the most ancient symbols of Christianity, but that hasn’t stopped Christian bookstores from making a fortune on Bumper fish magnets, Bumper fish shirts, and other Bumper fish merchandise.

Meanwhile, the standard Bumper Fish, having effectively removed all barriers to communication between Christians and non-Christians, has caused more and fiercer arguments than any other item in all of Christianity, not including, of course, the Bible itself.

ARTIE (holding fish, puts it back down on the counter): I think I’ll pass for now, thanks.

FORD: But maybe we can help you guys out.

BOOKSTORE WORKER: (suspicious) How?

FORD: My friend and I are writing a new book to help all the regular folks out there know more about Christianity. It will make Christianity look “with it” and “hip.” You’ll sell millions of copies!

BOOKSTORE WORKER: I don’t think anyone uses the terms “with it” and “hip” anymore.

FORD: Whatever. Look (pulls out a copy of the Guide, and hands it to the worker). Here’s a copy of the current draft. You look it over, and if you like it, we can have the final version ready for your shelves within a month!

BOOKSTORE WORKER: Well, I don’t know….

FORD: Wonderful! (shakes worker’s hand) Artie! We’re off to do more research! (Artie puts down the copy of “Left Behind” he’s been holding, gives worker a look that says “yeah, he’s weird, but it’s best just to humor him” look, then leaves with Ford.)

NARRATOR: Will Artie and Ford be successful in getting the Hitchhiker’s Guide published? Will the Evergreen Family Booksellers become multimillionaires? Will Artie ever tell Ford that he’s three fries short of a Happy Meal? Join us for the next reasonably illuminating installment.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity: Part I

I wrote this 3-part script a few months ago, and have shared it with a few friends in hopes that it might be performed at our seminary's annual variety show. Unfortunately, I have recently learned that the variety show is being cancelled this year, because they couldn't find enough people willing to perform or submit sketches. For this reason, I have decided to make the play available here. It was always meant to be broken into 3 separate segments, and so only the first part is being posted today. Other parts will be posted in days to follow.

This is a good time to reiterate this site's "Creative Commons" license. This means that I retain the rights to my work, but that I allow people to freely use any of my material provided the following conditions are met:
  1. That I be given credit for the work (by saying something along the lines of "written by B-W of Transforming Seminarian")
  2. That the work may not be used for commercial purposes.
  3. That if you decide to use, alter, or build upon this work, the resulting work be made available to others under terms identical to these.
That said, without further ado, here's part 1 of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Christianity (with apologies to Douglas Adams).

NARRATOR (always voice only): This is the story of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Christianity, a wholly remarkable book. Probably the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Augustine/Calvin. It is more popular than The Complete Exegetical Omnibus, better selling than Fifty-Three More Ways to Convert a Non-Believer, and more controversial than Winston Stapleton’s trilogy of theological-political blockbusters, Where Bush Went Wrong, Some More of Bush’s Greatest Mistakes, and Who Is This Bush Person Anyway?

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Western Coast of the United States, the
Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Biblaica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal (though, ironically, nothing about the Apocrypha itself), it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words SINNERS WELCOME inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover.

To tell the story of the book, it's best to tell the story of some of the minds behind it. Artie Kent, a student from Evergreen Theological Seminary, is one of them. Though, as our story opens, he no more knows his destiny than a Southern Baptist knows the history of the XXX Multiplex in West LA.

(scene: ARTIE KENT walks in from stage right. A group of students comes in from the opposite side. At least one is holding a sign saying “The End of the World is Nigh!” Others should have signs protesting a construction project. Artie sees the group and approaches.)

ARTIE KENT: Excuse me, what’s going on here?

PROTESTER ONE: We’re protesting the construction of the new 410 bypass. Since they couldn’t build it through the wealthy town south of here, they’ve decided to take it straight through the seminary.

ARTIE KENT: But why?

PROTESTER TWO: Well, it’s a bypass. Apparently you’ve
got to build bypasses.

ARTIE KENT: Well, I’m afraid I can’t stay and help, I’m late for class. Good luck! (Artie runs out stage left. Protesters shout and wave their signs while walking off stage right)

Webster Illustrated Contemporary Dictionary defines “luck” as “that which happens by chance; fortune or lot.” It says that to “try one’s luck” is to “try to do something without certainty of success.” The Hitchhiker’s Guide also mentions luck. It notes that many Christians define luck as “the notion that the world is random and left to chance at best, and an evil force at worst. Either way being antithetical to the notion of God’s all-controlling providence and blessing.” This requires them to come up with new terms for otherwise everyday phrases. “Good luck” becomes “God bless,” a “Pot luck” dinner becomes a “pot bless” dinner, and so on. The Hitchhiker’s Guide further notes that other Christians see this an unnecessary infringement upon contemporary language, suggesting that “everybody knows we don’t really mean that the world is left to chance” and further arguing that the first group of Christians shouldn’t be such nosy busybodies. This, naturally, gets the first group of Christians upset at the second set, leading to many heated arguments and fights over how best to use language in a way that consistently describes God’s loving kindness, the end result of which is that nearly all Christians involved more fervently desire that God would simply take them away to heaven all the sooner, so they might leave this crazy, messed-up, chaotic world behind.

(Artie returns from stage left. He stumbles upon a pile of clothes and picket signs in the middle of the stage.)

ARTIE KENT: What in the world? Don’t tell me that LaHaye and Jenkins were right after all!

FORD: (Walks in from off stage. Dressed somewhat eccentrically.) They weren’t.

ARTIE KENT: Really? Then how do you explain the piles of clothes laying here? Clothes I know that my friends were wearing just a couple of hours ago! And who
are you anyway?

FORD: Oh! Excuse me. I’m Ford Prophet. Well, I’d say LaHaye and Jenkins weren’t
entirely right, at any rate. Yes, some Christians have indeed been raptured. But didn’t you think it odd that your class continued right through it all, and that your professor kept on lecturing as though nothing had happened?

ARTIE KENT: Now that you mention it, that does seem a bit odd….

FORD: Now work with me, here. According to the book, the people that got left behind got a second chance to know Jesus, right?

ARTIE KENT: But of course. Buck Williams’ conversion scene from the movie has been played in our evangelism seminars for years!

FORD: But how did
you come to know about Christ?

ARTIE KENT: Oh, that’s easy. My second grade Sunday School teacher!

FORD: Exactly! Someone told you about him! Now, do you really think that giving people a second chance would do the least bit of good if all the Christians were already gone? Who would tell them about Jesus?

ARTIE KENT: Hmmm…. You have a point. But shouldn’t there be plenty of nominal Christians left behind? They would realize that they were wrong after seeing what happened.

FORD: Yes, yes, well, I think you credit humanity with a bit too much intelligence. Anyway, I figure that’s why some of us are still here. We’re here to set folks straight. And that’s why I’m here. I’m here to ask you help me write the most important book ever to be written.

ARTIE KENT: (a bit put off) The Bible’s already been written! It’s totally sufficient for our salvation….

FORD: yes,yes,yes. Well, the second-most important, then. Here (hands Artie a copy). Just read the first paragraph.

ARTIE KENT: (takes book a bit warily) Ooookay. Whatever you say. (Looks at book, while voice-over gives next passage.)

NARRATOR: God is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big God is. I mean, you may have trouble wrapping your mind around the concept of transubstantiation, but that's just peanuts to God.

ARTIE KENT: Interesting.

FORD: So, will you join me?

ARTIE KENT: Well, I don’t know…. (loud noise offstage. The noise of a bulldozer engine.)

FORD: Well, it looks like you’d better make up your mind now. With all the protestors raptured, there’s nothing stopping that bulldozer from tearing down the seminary! (noise gets louder. Sound of buildings being torn down. Lights flicker and debris thrown on from offstage left. Artie and Ford run off stage right.)

NARRATOR: Have our heroes really been “left behind”? Will they escape the destruction of the seminary? Will they be able to find meaningful employment? What does all this mean for the rest of the seminary population? Does anything have any meaning anyway? At least
some of these questions might be answered in our next installment.


Monday, February 06, 2006

Classic Movie Review: The Music Man

I saw the 1962 version of Meredith Willson's The Music Man, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, the other day. Like several musicals from this time period, I have a strong fondness for the movie from my childhood, but as I watch it as an adult, I occasionally wonder why. As I seek to understand this question, let me walk through a few of the main characters.

Prof. Harold Hill: We never do learn his full real name (and its debatable whether or not "Gregory," as he's called by his friend Marcellus Washburn, is his real first name, although the fact that Marcellus is clearly Washburn's real name would indicate that it is). Perhaps it's too strong to call Hill a "con man"--the instruments and uniforms he sells are legitimate enough. But the way he goes about selling his wares; creating a need for a boys band in a conservative small town (hence the song "Ya Got Trouble"), and promising to lead the band himself (despite the fact that he can't read music at all, much less play band instruments), is certainly the work of a con man, as is his spellbinding way of getting the townsfolk to believe whatever he tells them. At best, his system of selling all he can, then running out of town as soon as he's collected the money, is dishonest. As the story opens, Hill is a crook, and seems perfectly happy to go on being one.

Charlie Cowell: The anvil salesman. Although portrayed as something of a "villain" in this piece, he's got a legitimate complaint that the antics of Professor Hill make it difficult for more honest salesmen, such as himself, to earn a living. Other than his grudge against Hill (and perhaps his over-eager attitude toward Marian, who he constantly calls the condescending name "girlie girl"), we see no reason to believe that Cowell is anything less than an honest man of integrity.

Marian Paroo: The librarian. Misunderstood by the rest of the citizens of River City, Iowa. They accuse her of an illicit relationship with one of the town's benefactors, and she believes them to be fundamentally ignorant (or at least anti-intellectual). She is the only person in River City to make any concerted effort to find out the truth about Professor Hill's claims (the Mayor and School Board members being very easily distracted by Hill's diversions).

The people of River City, Iowa: Besides Marian's opinion of them, it seems clear that the play is written to depict most of the townsfolk as fairly simple-minded people. The Mayor constantly trips over his own phrases. The Mayor's wife is a self-important show-off, constantly putting herself at the center of thinly veiled dance recitals. The School Board are quickly turned into a barbershop quartet (I love barbershop music!) whenever they try to get Hill's credentials. The women are terrible gossip-mongers. And the two songs to feature a large cross-section of lines from random townsfolk ("Iowa Stubborn" and "Wells Fargo Wagon") are often sung with lines off-key and off-rhythm (I'm convinced that this is a conscious directorial decision designed to make a statement about the townsfolk. However, it should be noted that there are at least some truly impressive voices among them.).

Marcellus Washburn: Deserves special mention. A former con artist and friend of Hill (although he doesn't know Hill by that name, as already noted), Marcellus has "gone straight," and is truly happy living in this simple town. Still, he's also a loyal friend, and is willing to help Hill in his latest scheme.

Mrs. Paroo: Marian's mother. Obviously, she wants grandchildren. But one can't help but wonder at how desperately she tries to push Marian onto Prof. Hill (or, it would seem, any other eligible bachelor that comes into town). She doesn't seem to care a bit that the man's not what he seems to be, or at the very least she seems to pay no respect to Marian's concerns about Hill. It's almost as though she's saying "So what if he's a jerk that will steal all our money? He's a man!" She certainly buys into the old idea (perhaps not so old in some circles, and this is a period film...) that a woman's worth is mostly tied up in finding a husband, as demonstrated in her first scene with Marian, where after Marian complains that none of the women in River City take her advice, her mother's response is along the lines of "when they have a husband, and you have none, why should they listen to you?" (As if Marian's advice would have anything to do with husband-finding!)

Winthrop Paroo: Marian's much-younger brother. He has a lisp, and is very self-conscious about it. This results in his not wanting to talk very much, especially if there are "s"s in the words, and he's generally unhappy. I'm convinced that the entire story hinges on this character.

During the song "Wells Fargo Wagon," Marian is attempting to tell the Mayor that she's just found out that the town of Gary, Indiana (from which Professor Hill claims to have graduated from the Gary Conservatory of Music, class of '05) wasn't even built until '06! (Incidentally, I'm surprised that Hill gets this important fact wrong, but actually correctly attributes the name of the town to "Elbert Gary, of judiciary fame.") But when Winthrop comes on stage for his solo, singing lines full of "s"s while he eagerly awaits the arrival of his instrument, and then proudly shows off his new "tholid gold thing" to his sister, Marian rips the page out of the encyclopedia entry on Gary before handing it to the Mayor. It is only after this time that Marian starts to see Hill in a romantic way. She knows the truth about him, and yet, because of the dreams that he's brought the town (and especially, to her little brother), she doesn't care.

And this is ultimately what changes Hill, as well. He's been used to having quick relationships and "one-night stands," but has never found a person that actually knew who and what he was, and still wanted to be with him. When Hill's secret is eventually exposed by Charlie Cowell, although Marian, Marcellus, and even Winthrop encourage Hill to get out of town, Hill stays, explaining that, for the first time, "I got my foot caught in the door."

It's just as well that this musical (like most fiction) is only a "slice" of the lives of the people contained in the story. It's interesting to speculate about what the lives of Professor Hill (or whatever name he ultimately chose to go under) and Marian Paroo would have been like. The Music Man actually ends rather abruptly, with the parents gushing over the nascent instrumental skills of their children. It seems that they will forgive Hill, but that's not entirely certain. Perhaps he was given a modest reprimand, rather than being "tarred and feathered." Would Harold and Marian have gotten married? What kind of marriage could they have had, given that neither of them knows the other very well at the end of this story? Would Hill have given up his job selling band instruments? It seems likely that he would have to. How would he earn a living? Could Hill learn how to conduct a boys band, if he decided to learn how to play?

But please rest assured that none of this constitutes a request for a sequel to The Music Man. Such a sequel would be a horrible idea. If anything, this story is about the importance of dreams. That, sometimes, the ability to dream of what could be is better than a slavish devotion to what is. The end credits sequence, where the characters find their simple band uniforms transformed into brightly colored ones, and they all march down the streets of town, bears this out. To do a sequel to The Music Man would destroy this message.

Friday, February 03, 2006

New Doctor Who Guide: The Christmas Invasion

This is considerably later than I'd intended, and for that I apologize. I have actually had the bulk of this entry sitting in draft form for a couple of weeks, but debated whether or not to continue with this "Guide" series when the announcement came that the new series of Doctor Who episodes will be featured on the Sci-Fi channel in the US. I haven't quite made up my mind on this, but figure that there will be few people who stumble upon this entry before they've had a chance to see the episode that will be spoiled by the information therein.

If I do decide to continue this series when new episodes appear, it will be standard for all "New Doctor Who Guide" entries to encourage comments regarding any suggestions or corrections in the comments. I will update the entry for any such comments I receive once I've verified the accuracy of the comment by re-watching the episode.

The Christmas Invasion

Roots: H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, Disney's The Lion King, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Goofs: When the alien ship hits the atmosphere, it causes a sonic wave powerful enough to shatter glass. However, no one seems to be suffering from popped eardrums. Why does Jones' "right hand man" translate the Sycorax term designated "tribal leader" on his translator as "leader of this world"?

Technobabble: The idea that superheated tea helped the Doctor's synapses heal.

Dialogue Disasters: Jackie: (after learning of the Doctor's two hearts) "Anything else he's got two of?"
Jackie: "I'm gonna get killed by a Christmas tree!"
The overly long sequence where the Doctor tries to tell Jackie what he needs, and Jackie interrupts him after every two words before the Doctor finally tells her to shut up.

Dialogue Triumphs: Harriet Jones: "You can tell the President, and please use these exact words: 'He's not my boss, and he's certainly not turning this into a war.'"
Rose: "Someone's got to be the Doctor." Jones: "They'll kill you!" Rose: "Never stopped him!"
Sycorax leader: "You stand as this world's champion?" The Doctor: "Thank you. I have no idea who I am, but you've just summed me up!"

Continuity: Mickey works as an auto mechanic. The TARDIS crash lands by emerging from the vortex in mid-air with considerable velocity, rather than simply appearing in place as is usual. The Sonic Screwdriver is able to cause the remote-controlled "Christmas Tree" to explode. The news reports talk of the original Sycorax broadcast as being absolute proof of alien life. [The crash landing of an alien ship into Big Ben in "Aliens of London" was proven to be a hoax, and few people who knew of the involvement of the Slytheen survived. Jones seems to indicate that her involvement with them is still a secret.] UNIT knows that Martians look completely different from the Sycorax. The fact that Rose cannot understand the Sycorax at first indicates that something is wrong with the Doctor [and his link to the TARDIS]. UNIT has technology capable of translating alien languages, given enough time. A "Code 9" indicates that the Doctor has been sighted. Neither the Prime Minister nor the United Nations are supposed to know about "Torchwood," although Harriet Jones does know about them. The Doctor is able to discern that the blood is not only human, but A-positive, just by tasting it. The Doctor can regrow body parts (such as his hand) within the first 15 hours of his regeneration cycle. The Torchwood weapon was adapted from an alien ship that fell to Earth 10 years ago. The TARDIS wardrobe is on an upper floor, connected by a spiral staircase. The Doctor keeps glasses in his pocket for watching the television.

Links: Harriet Jones is now Prime Minister ("Aliens of London"/"World War III"). The Doctor is still spewing out bits of time vortex (The "Children in Need" Special), but this time the Doctor talks as if it's just a side effect of his regeneration, and that he's "bursting with energy." [Since it was the absorption of the vortex energies that caused the regeneration in the first place, this is not necessarily contradictory.] UNIT is still the organization charged with dealing with alien encounters. Big Ben is shown to still be under reconstruction ("Aliens of London"). Rose name-drops concepts from most of the previous season in her attempt to impress the Sycorax. The Doctor relates the time Harriet Jones was trapped with them in Downing Street ("World War III") to prove to her he is the same man.

Location: Contemporary London, Christmastime; Sycorax spaceship.

The Bottom Line: An entertaining regeneration tale, but some of the resolutions come a bit too easily to be entirely plausible. David Tennant continues (after the 7-minute Children in Need special) to make a promising debut in his first full story.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

My Story: Student Government

I've said before that Montreat College (called "Montreat-Anderson College" at the time I started attending) was a very small school, having a total enrollment of about 400 students at the time I was there. This meant that I had some rather unique opportunities that I likely would not have had if I had been at another school. At least one such opportunity was my involvement in the Student Government Association (SGA).

When I was in high school, running for student office was not an option for me. The school's rules dictated that a person interested in holding an office could not just run by themselves, but had to put together a "slate" of 5 people that ran together. This slate needed to include both men and women, had to have representation from more than one race, and needed to include students from more than one academic program (i.e, "Advanced" and "Honors" programs, or "Honors" and "Liberal Arts," for example). Not being a particularly social person, getting such a "slate" together was a virtual impossibility for me. So any student government experience would have to wait....

But when I entered college, I was quickly tapped to be a part of what was called the "Honor Court" as the Freshman class representative. Like many Christian colleges, Montreat had a set of rules that was called the "Honor Code." This consisted of things such as lying, cheating, plagiarism, and so on: "minor" infractions by some standards, but the Honor Code was meant to be a testament to our Christian ideals. When infractions of the Honor Code were believed to occur, the accused student would have their case brought to the Honor Court, to be heard by his/her peers.

Being on the Honor Court meant that we got to attend the larger SGA meetings, and so I became familiar with how certain aspects of how the school were run: student events, how student funds were spent, etc. I also saw a fair bit of controversy, as different factions of the student body would get into heated arguments about policies that they thought were unfair (and probably a few that actually were). Sometimes, scandal would strike the SGA directly, such as the time during my second year at the college when the Junior Class President left the school under accusation of stealing valuable items from another student. This left a gap that needed to be filled amidst a turbulent time.

Although I did attend Montreat College for the usual 4 years, I had earned enough college credits through special classes while I was in High School to be classified as a college Junior by my second year, and so I was eligible for the now-vacant office. I inquired about what I would need to do if I were interested in running, and was essentially told that the job was mine. Attempting to do things a little more properly than that, I called a Junior class meeting to discuss the matter, as well as to select a Vice-President (that office also being vacant, for reasons which elude me at present). A total of three people attended: myself, my friend who edited the Literary magazine, and one other. That third person said he wouldn't mind serving as Vice-President, and so he got the job. (Again, I stress how small our school was, although we still could have theoretically had some 50-70 students come if the entire class took an interest.)

One particular controversy that hit at about this time involved a radio station that came to our school for a promotional contest. They would give away a free trip to Florida for Spring Break. This was a "big deal" for a small conservative school like ours, for all the wrong reasons. There were a couple of people who strongly objected to such a "secular" prize being given away at our school to one of our students, as if to encourage drinking and the kind of debauchery often assumed to go on during Spring Breaks in Florida.

We debated the matter in SGA, and my editor friend argued against having such contests at the college in the future. Most of the SGA members treated this suggestion with hostility and were very rude (I think it's safe to say that the SGA was more liberal than the student body as a whole. Take that for whatever it's worth). I defended my friend's right to her opinion, and found myself on the wrong end of the other students' insults. It was an ugly meeting.

A couple of days later, I walked out of my dormitory building to find my friend's car plastered over with bumper stickers displaying the name of the radio station in question, and an empty bottle of wine on top of the car. I promptly took the stickers off of the car (thankfully, it was still early enough in the morning that there was a layer of dew all over the car, and the stickers had been very recently applied, so I was able to take the stickers off without damage to the car), and later told my friend what had happened. To the best of my recollection, the person who attempted to vandalize my friend's car was never caught.

It was only a few weeks after this incident that my editor friend passed away. About a month after that, the SGA Vice-President approached me. In addition to being on SGA, I had worked with her through my involvement in the drama department, and she suggested that I run for the office of SGA President. I expect that, out of my grief, I wasn't thinking terribly clearly at the time, because I actually applied and ran for the office.

I've already emphasized a few times that my college had a very small student body. It should therefore come as no surprise that, when election season comes around, there are many offices for which only one person is running. This does not (contrary to my experience becoming Junior Class President) mean that the office automatically goes to whoever runs. The SGA Constitution requires that a candidate much receive at least "50% plus 1" of the votes cast to win an election.

The person who was currently Student Body President at that time had actually lost his first attempt to run, despite running unopposed, to a write-in candidate (the previous President, who had specifically said he didn't want the job again). It was soon determined that the write-in candidate won illegally, as supporters were encouraging people to write in the candidate's name at the polls, which was clearly a violation of our constitution. So a second election was held for the office of SGA President (as well as for one or two other heretofore unfilled positions). The person who had run unopposed before ran, unopposed, again, and lost again, until it was determined that, unless the student casting the ballot specifically wrote "NO" next to the Presidential candidate's name (there was no box on the ballot for a "no" vote), no vote was considered to be cast one way or the other (remember, the candidate must win "50% plus 1" of the votes cast). Even after reinterpreting the ballots in this way, the candidate only won by a few votes.

Thankfully, my own election for SGA President was not so controversial. Although I also ran unopposed, I was elected by more than 90% of the votes cast.

My year as SGA President was an eventful one, although I really can't take credit for most of the progress that happened. This was the year that "Montreat-Anderson College" decided to change its name to "Montreat College" (making me the last-ever SGA President of "Montreat-Anderson"), and the budget crisis of that year dictated that a lot of things were cut that I would have just as soon preserved. I was heavily involved in streamlining our student judicial process, bringing "Honor Code" violations under the same system that more serious violations (such as physical assault and vandalism) were adjudicated under (and, frankly, I always thought that plagiarism should have been given more weight, anyway). And I'm happy to say that I left the SGA in good hands, as my Vice-President succeeded me as President, gaining about 98% of the vote in her election!

I actually attended Montreat College for one more year after my time as SGA President ended, but I really had no intention of keeping the office for another year. That third year was, by far, my busiest year of college. I was SGA President, edited the literary magazine, and participated in drama (any one of which should have been considered full-time endeavors!) all at the same time, and I was looking forward to a year as "just a student." As it turned out, I did end up becoming involved in further extra-curricular activities, being asked to serve as a Resident Assistant in my dorm for that final year.

But that's a story for another time....

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


A lot was said about how "fair" Samuel Alito would be as a Supreme Court Justice during the hearings and debates before his actual confirmation yesterday (and likewise before him for Justice Roberts and the theoretical Justice Harriet Miers before she withdrew her name from consideration). Republicans accused Democrats of wanting a Justice who would vote according to their partisan agenda. Clearly, such a judge would not be a "fair" Justice. Likewise, Democrats argued that a right-wing conservative would have an "agenda" to turn the country further to the right, and would overturn freedoms currently held dear to many Americans. Certainly, this would not be a "fair" Justice, either.

In the midst of it all, and no doubt completely unnoticed by the politicians, I made a couple of statements regarding the impossibility of true "Impartiality." While these blog posts were certainly of no importance whatsoever to the Senators and others who debated these issues, I sought to encourage people to be open and honest about whatever prejudices they may have, going under the assumption that all human beings operate under such prejudices. The argument I used was that only as people are aware of their own prejudices can they seek to overcome them.

Today, Judge Alito is now Justice Alito, and perhaps the dust can settle somewhat. Time will tell how truly "fair" Justice Alito will be, and no doubt his rulings will be debated for years to come. I thought it appropriate to put a coda on this time by reflecting on the votes for all Supreme Court Nominees since 1970 (not including those who were never voted on, such as Miers). Most of these figures come most immediately from Wikipedia (other figures are linked where appropriate), but there are links from there to more reliable source material for each individual vote.
Harold Carswell (rejected) - 45 “yes”/51 “no”
Harry Blackmun - Unanimous "yes"
Powell - 89 "yes" - 1 "no"
Rehnquist - 68 "yes/26 "no" for original appointment; 65 “yes”/33 “no” for Chief Justice
Stevens - Unanimous “yes”
O’Connor - Unanimous “yes”
Scalia - Unanimous “yes”
Robert Bork (rejected) - 42 “yes”/58 “no”
Kennedy - Unanimous “yes”
Souter - 90 “yes”/9 “no”
Thomas - 52 “yes”/48 “no”
Ginsburg - 97 “yes”/3 “no”
Breyer - 87 “yes”/9 “no”
Roberts - 78 “yes”/22 “no”
Alito - 58 "yes"/42 "no"
Leaving aside Justices Alito, Thomas and the two rejected nominees to the Supreme Court, it's clear that Justices who make it to the court generally have broad support in the Senate vote. Many were unanimous (including Justices from both sides of the political spectrum, interestingly enough), and most had well above the 60-vote threshold that is currently required to overturn a filibuster (not that this is necessarily relevant. After all, although Alito had fewer than 60 "yes" votes, there were enough votes to overturn John Kerry's filibuster attempt).

Of those who remain, there's Alito, Thomas (who admittedly also had a highly publicized sexual harrassment scandal bringing his votes down, besides his right-wing leanings), and the two nominees who didn't make it. It's interesting to me that even the two nominees who were rejected were rejected by fairly narrow margins. In fact, most rejected nominees historically have gone down in a reasonably close vote, with only one nominee ever going down with a vote totaling less than 40% of those cast, by my math (Alexander Wolcott, in 1811). This seems to me to be because there is a widespread feeling in the Senate to go with whoever the President chooses for the Supreme Court, granting him the "benefit of the doubt." To put it another way, the burden of proof seems to be to prove a Justice unworthy to serve on the court. The assumption seems to be that, since the President chose the person, the person must be qualified to serve on the court.

I would submit that such an assumption is unfounded, and is a failing of our current system for selecting Justices to the highest court in our nation. If we really care about fairness, the standard for a person getting to this court should be very high. People from both sides of the political spectrum should be able to reach widespread agreement that a Justice will do everything in his/her power to be fair. I would suggest that Justices ought to be confirmed by a two-thirds majority, although I confess that this is a somewhat arbitrary number.

Still, a two-thirds majority is clearly not too high a standard to set. Of the 9 Justices now on the court, three were voted in unanimously. Both of the post-1970 Justices selected after rejected nominees were approved unanimously. Seven of our current Justices made it to the court with greater than a two-thirds majority. These are truly bipartisan votes. Clearly, a diverse range of both Republicans and Democrats trusted these justices to be as fair as possible. Why is it too much to ask that all of our Supreme Court Justices meet this standard? Do we really want to say that a simple majority of politicians, almost entirely from the same political party, is a sufficient standard of fairness?


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