Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Christmas Wishes

Well, it's time for my annual Christmas break. This will be my last entry until the New Year. I hope you enjoy this Christmas parody (and, if you're so inclined, you can re-live last year's, too!). I'll be back on January 3rd. In the meantime, you might want to check out the "Stocking Stuffer" offer over at tfsource.com: a WST G2 Blue "Santa" Grimlock! I'm getting mine!
(To the tune of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas")

Have yourself a Megatron-y Christmas
May your toys be Prime.
Next year, may your shopping all be done on time.

Have yourself a Megatron-y Christmas
Be he gun or tank
Either way, I hope it doesn't break the bank.

As you shop for the latest toys
All the greatest toys, in-store
Just remember to leave a few,
one or two will do, not more

Someday, all your favorite toys will gather
If the shelves allow
Until then, you'll have to muddle through somehow.

But have yourself a Megatron-y Christmas now.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The War on Christmas Revisited

Last year, there was a big uproar over the idea that "Christmas" was under attack. The idea is not that we're seeing too much of Santa Claus, and not enough of Jesus Christ, but that, when you see "Happy Holidays" on television, or at your local store, the name "Christmas" is being removed by godless heathen in the name of political correctness, and that Christians are increasingly told that they cannot have Christmas-specific displays in public places.

The "War on Christmas" is still around. There was a fuss a couple of weeks ago when Christmas trees were taken down at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (and eventually put back up) when a Jewish Rabbi requested that a menorah be added to the holiday displays, apparently threatening legal action if such attention to non-Christian holidays was not paid. But that situation has died down now, and it must be noted that there doesn't seem to be anything like as much uproar about the supposed "war on Christmas" this year as there was a year ago.

This lull in hostilities may be illustrated by the opening line in a Christmas letter I recently received: "A year ago, people were saying 'Happy Holidays' to each other, but it's nice to see that once again people are putting the 'Christ' back in 'Christmas.'" (paraphrased) Of course, the infuriating thing about this kind of a statement, is that it implies not only that "Happy Holidays" is some kind of anti-Christian attack, but that it's something new. People have been using the phrase "Happy Holidays" for many, many years now! There were no more people using the phrase last year than there had been for years previously, and I doubt that many fewer people are using the phrase this year. The only thing that's changed is that the likes of Falwell aren't quite as vocal (or, at least, as loud) this year as they were last year. (His Liberty Counsel's "Friend or Foe" site is still up, though).

The people who sent me that Christmas letter are not stupid people. But it's frustrating to see that they, like so many well-meaning Christians, have bought into the lies spread by those who've declared that this "War on Christmas" exists. (By the way, how does one declare a war, yet maintain that the war is against them? Aren't they declaring war against the secular forces in society? Shouldn't it be called the "War against the Anti-Christmas Forces" or some such? Yeah, yeah.... It doesn't roll off the tongue as easily, does it?)

The fact is, we live in a culture (not to mention a world) in which people of many different faiths must co-exist. And many of those different faiths have holidays that are celebrated at the same time as Christmas, and people would like to see their own beliefs given air-time. If the television stations and the shopping centers, which tend just as likely as not to be led by people who hold no strong Christian connection themselves, want to give equal time to other religions, why not let them? If they want to save time by using some "catch-all" greeting such as "Happy Holidays," who's being hurt? Christians have just as much freedom to celebrate Christmas in the privacy of their own homes as they've always had. If Christians are concerned that the public sphere isn't as open to them as it once was... well, that may be true. But we're not helping our witness with those who do not yet know Christ by aggressively fighting to maintain the nominal mention of the name of "Christ" within "Christmas" (almost universally without the actual substance thereof). We need to show believers of other faiths respect. If the good news of Christmas is really true, then people will change as they see how Christians behave when we're at our best, not when we're at our worst.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Cliffjumper's Identity Crisis

Back when I was a kid, I would often hear someone claim that there was no difference between Cliffjumper and Bumblebee other than their color. Although the molds are indeed very similar, any serious examination of the two figures reveals that the molds are by no means identical. Different head, different chest, different feet.

However, the myth persisted. Ironically, this problem seemed to be made more difficult (rather than improved) by the fact that Hasbro also released a yellow version of Cliffjumper and a red version of Bumblebee. I've never quite figured this out. If one couldn't tell that the original Cliffjumper and Bumblebee weren't the same (other than their color) before, then surely looking at a yellow Cliffjumper next to a yellow Bumblebee would clear up all doubt! But, no....

Sadly, this problem has only gotten worse over the years. When Joe Toscano of www.custommasters.com decided to create a Cliffjumper Action Master, he naturally used Bumblebee as the basis, since no official Action Master Cliffjumper has ever existed. And, as the cartoon image on that link demonstrates, the final result is indeed fairly accurate, at least in regard to the head-shot we can see. Part of the problem here is that, although the original Bumblebee toy had a shield for a face, the cartoon always depicted him with a mouth, and the Action Master Bumblebee figure followed the cartoon's lead. So when AM Bumblebee was painted red, there wasn't too much different between the faces anymore. In fact, the only thing left (so far as I can tell) is that Bumblebee's head still follows a roughly round shape, while Cliffjumper's head is more triangular. But this difference is admittedly subtle, especially in the animation. The figure's feet are still Bumblebee's, but who's looking at them? This kind of thing is not only completely acceptable for a custom, but is in fact a pretty amazing job.

Recent versions continue this trend less excusably. Although Cliffjumper's name has been used a couple of times in recent years (in Armada and Energon), neither of these represents the classic character, so we can safely ignore them. But when Palisades put out a Cliffjumper statue, it was just a straight-up repaint of their Bumblebee statue: roundish head and VW Beetle feet. Unmistakably a "red Bumblebee." And this was no production mistake or custom figure. This was an official product, licensed by Hasbro! And now, there are a couple of new "Cliffjumper" toys on the horizon: one small figure in the Titaniums line, and one in the "Classics" line. These are also just red repaints of Bumblebee figures.

Although it seems that the original versions of both Cliffjumper and Bumblebee will be re-released as keychains (for the second time!) in the near future, given the trend toward saving money by doing repaints, I doubt we'll see a new version of the "classic" Cliffjumper character that's not a straight repaint of Bumblebee ever again. It seems that my old classmates were right. Just 20 years too early!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Preparing for Christmas

I don't know if it's a sign that I'm getting older, or that I may simply be getting too busy, but this year, as has been increasingly true for the past few years, Christmastime is sneaking up on me again. It's not really that I don't know it's coming. I've been preparing Advent podcasts for weeks now, and have already finished the special podcast scheduled for the Christmas Eve worship service (will be posted Sunday night, see the podcast page for updates). But the problem is, it hasn't really felt like Christmas all that much, and a lot of the preparations needed to get ready for Christmas (decorating the house, making sure presents are sent off, getting the Christmas letter written) are simply not ready yet.

As an Evangelical Christian, I don't need reminding that those kinds of preparations aren't really what the season's about. I hope that I can say with integrity that, even if I'm missing out on a lot of the other preparations, I still understand "the reason for the season" (which I admit is an irritatingly trite phrase, and I promise not to use it again). But I do believe that a lot of the not-explicitly-religious facets of the Christmas season are important, too. It is a time to catch up with family. It is a season of giving. It is a time to make an extra effort to be kind to people (which is not to say one shouldn't be kind all the time, but rather that, being human, we often need to have an "extra push" to do the right thing).

So, anyway, to all those family and friends who have been asking what I want for Christmas, my apologies for not being more on the ball. If it helps, I am including here a couple of links.

My Amazon.com Wish ListThe first one is to my Amazon.com Wish List. I have tried to be careful to include things that, while I would like, I will not be likely to buy for myself before Christmas.

The other link is on the sidebar, and is a bit more... simplistic, being a link to donate cash to my PayPal account. I know that many people feel that it isn't appropriate to give cash for Christmas, and I agree that a well-chosen gift can be a lot more memorable and fosters closer personal connections. But it is still a fact that cash would be helpful in my current place in life, so I'll include the link nevertheless. Incidentally, when sending e-mail related to the blog (or the podcast), please use the e-mail link at the top of the sidebar, rather than the address connected to these accounts.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Knock-off 2-packs at Tuesday Morning

Tuesday Morning is one of those "gift stores" that specializes in selling stuff that other stores don't want anymore, and sells those items at massive discounts. Usually, there's a reason why the other stores didn't want the stuff in the first place, but one can occasionally find good deals there. Last year, quite a few Transformers Energon figures and G1 reissues were able to found really cheap. But that kind of find is unfortunately rather rare.

While there don't seem to be any authentic Transformers to be found at Tuesday Morning these days, there are a number of knock-offs that are showing up. None of the knock-offs are, in and of themselves, all that unique. This kind of thing has been showing up at Big Lots and in other bargain outlets for quite some time now. But the fact that these are showing up in two-packs is a bit different.

Last week, I discovered this pair of knock-off Cyberjets. Knock-off Cyberjets are a relatively new phenomenon. I don't think I saw any prior to this past year. The figures in this box use the molds originally used for G2 Skyjack and G2 Space Case (left to right). I was more intrigued, however, by the images of Star Saber and Victory Leo on this box. Sadly, I couldn't find any knock-offs of them around (either knock-offs of the originals or of the more recent "RobotMasters" versions. I don't claim to be familiar enough with those particular Japanese exclusives to be able to tell which version is depicted on the box, although I'd guess the "RobotMasters" versions are more likely).

I found these two items while at a different Tuesday Morning yesterday. Each of these two-packs features a "Micromaster" combiner (Sixbuilder on the left of the picture on the left, and Sixliner on the right of the picture on the right) packaged with a downsized version of a "Scramble City"-style combiner (Defensor on the right of the first picture, and Bruticus on the left of the second picture, although in keeping with the pattern of most knock-offs, the color scheme of "Bruticus" more closely matches "Baldigus" from the Japanese "Car Robots" line).

As might be expected, the plastic quality of these knock-offs looks to be pretty low. But if you're looking for cheap Transformers, or are looking for fodder for a custom creation, these might be worth checking out.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Because It Apparently Can Never Be Said Enough

The word.

Is pronounced.

Noo-CLEE-ar!

(Today's the day I have students from all over the seminary scrambling to turn in papers at my office. Regular, more thoughtful, postings will resume on Monday, after I've had a chance to catch my breath.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It's a Wonderful Life Revisited

For many people, watching It's a Wonderful Life during Christmastime has become something of a Christmas tradition. I myself haven't watched the movie all the way through in years, but something hit me the other day, and so, thanks to Google Video, I was able to download a copy of the 1946 classic, which I watched last night. (Disclaimer: contrary to a popular legend, It's a Wonderful Life is NOT in the public domain. Although Google Video was offering the video for free in 2006, and was presumed to be doing so legally, the link has since been taken down.)

This movie is so steeped in American culture that even most people who've never seen the movie have some idea of the plot: George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is about to commit suicide, and an angel is sent to save his life. In order to convince George that he is wrong in his belief that the world would be better off without him, the angel shows George just what the world would have been like if George had never been born. Eventually, George is convinced of just how much his life has been worth, and he chooses not to commit suicide.

I had a fairly good recollection of George's state of mind at the time the angel is sent to save him: the Bailey family Building and Loan is in dire straits. George's uncle has misplaced an important deposit, and George is accused of misapropriation of funds. Unable to collect the money, facing jail time, and possessing a $15,000 Life Insurance policy, George believes that he'll be worth more dead than alive and proceeds to a bridge, from which he intends to jump.

What I'd forgotten, and what particularly struck me during this viewing, was just how miserable George was throughout his life up to this pivotal moment. All his life, George has had dreams of leaving his "crummy little" home town of Bedford Falls to travel the world. He has ambitions of building great things and striking it rich. Unfortunately for George, every time he is just about to be able to leave, something happens. For example, on the night before George is to leave for college, George's father dies. Not only is George tied up for the next three months putting his father's affairs in order, but it soon becomes clear that the family Building and Loan will be shut down unless George himself agrees to take over.

It also suprised me just how much I identified with George's reasons for taking over the Building and Loan, rather than just letting it go. Bedford Falls is almost entirely owned by banker Henry Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore), a hard-bitten old man who has made his fortune on the backs of people trying to make a life for themselves. George knows that, without his family's Building and Loan, most people will never know the financial security that can come with owning one's own home, being forced to pay Potter's exhorbitant rental rates, never being able to scrape up more than the bare minimum to survive on. Although the monetary figures, being in keeping with the era, seem miniscule compared to the rates of today, this is a situation that is near to my own heart (in fact, I've written on the subject a number of times over the past couple of years). I wish there were more "Bailey Building and Loans" in today's world!

But again and again as I watched the movie yesterday, I was especially aware of the personal cost George Bailey had to pay for "doing the right thing." For another example, on the evening of George's wedding day, he discovers that the bank has closed down in the wake of a financial crisis. He then discovers that his uncle, in a state of panic, has likewise locked up the Building and Loan. Potter is circling like a vulture nearby, ready to pay Bailey patrons 50 cents on the dollar to snatch up their shares, enabling him to shut down his main competition. Bailey (at the suggestion of his new wife) is forced to use the $2,000 (a huge sum in that time) saved up for his honeymoon to give his patrons the money they need to get through the crisis, thereby preventing the Building and Loan from being shut down for good. It's a very memorable scene, and is a wonderful illustration of the kind of person George is. He consistently comes to the aid of others, despite the often considerable costs to himself.

In many ways, I identify with George Bailey. He is the kind of person I very much want to be like. But I grow weary of the financial frustration of living in Southern California, and often feel "trapped" in my current situation, much as Potter observes that Bailey feels "trapped" in Bedford Falls during another important scene. While I don't believe I could ever be described as suicidal, I find myself very much wishing that there was "another way" for people such as George to attend to the needs of others. While I haven't forgotten the ending to It's a Wonderful Life, where the people of Bedford Falls all gather together, pooling their resources to help George out of his situation, and he realizes just how "rich" he truly is in the love he has from his family and friends, I don't have much faith in similar community miracles happening today. Perhaps I have become too cynical. I very much want to believe in such miracles, much as I want to be the kind of selfless person that George Bailey often was. But that can be a pretty hard place to be....

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sales Savvy

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing. Have you found all the toys you want (to give to other people, of course!)?

Because I was vacationing in Placerville during the Thanksgiving holiday, I was unable to take advantage of the Target sale on the Transformers Millenium Falcon set (regularly about $35, they were selling them for $15), but I noticed today that Toys R Us is selling the set for $27. Do I get it now? Do I wait? Do I really need to get it anyway?

After all, I might need that money to get Generation 1 Soundwave, which is coming out soon, although there is some uncertainty as to whether that December 5th release date is accurate. I guess we'll find out by the time I can post on Wednesday.

And, of course, I still have my eyes on Primus, although I've been unwilling to shell out $50 (or even the $43 it's currently on sale for at TRU, although Target's current sale for about $40 is starting to look tempting), even for a toy of that size. I did try to take advantage of a Thanksgiving deal Wal-Mart had for Primus, which would have included bonus Mini-Cons, but the one Wal-Mart I was able to get to while on vacation didn't have any, and I haven't been able to find any at the Wal-Mart near home, either.

Apparently, the fact that I'm paying attention to the sales isn't at all uncommon. I was listening to a story on NPR that was talking about how consumers have been trained to wait for sales, especially during this time of year. People having limited funds look for sales, and tend not to pay retail if they think they can do better just by waiting.

Of course, an item such as Soundwave (which will only be sold at Toys R Us), will probably do a bit better, since it hasn't been on shelves for a while already. And since there's only one place to get it, people have no real expectation that they can find a better price by looking elsewhere. Of course, if it doesn't do as well as expected, we might start seeing massive reductions like finally happened to the G1 reissues from the last two years (starting from $20-30, they were finally practically given away at massive clearance prices). But that wouldn't happen for months, even in a worst case scenario. If you want to get this toy by Christmastime, the price you see now is the price you'll be paying.

Of course, I may not end up buying any of these toys right now. After all, it's Christmastime, and I have a number of other folks I need to buy for, too. (There's really no fooling anyone in my family. I'm the one who likes Transformers!)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Classic Transformers Review: Reflector

I originally wrote this review intending for it to be a part of the official Transformers club, either as part of the magazine or on the web site (I've been arguing for a long time now that the club members-only web page needs better content and more updating). Many months have passed now, and there's no indication that the club intends to use this material. Updating the review a bit with appropriate web linkage, hopefully it will provide some better-than-average content here.



Most fans who remember watching the original Transformers cartoon when it originally aired remember a character named Reflector. Reflector was a camera that split apart into three identical (or nearly so) robots. Yet this fondly remembered character never appeared in toy stores due to what was apparently a late decision by Hasbro not to offer the 3-robots-in-1-camera toy (which they had licensed from the Japanese company Takara, and which had been part of their “Microman” line) for regular distribution. The TF cartoon bible (excerpts of which can be found here) lists Reflector as one of the original Decepticons, but has notes that the toy was discontinued, with instructions not to use the character in future episodes. This no doubt explains why most of Reflector’s cartoon appearances were in very early episodes.

Having already secured the rights to the Reflector toy from Takara, Hasbro needed to find a way to distribute such merchandise as they had available, and so they made Reflector available as a mail-order exclusive, much as had been previously done for the Powerdashers and Omnibots. Reflector was notable for being the only Decepticon to be made available only through mail-order in over 20 years of Transformers history, a distinction held until club exclusive Landquake appeared this past year.

While the toy version of Reflector consists of three robots that combine into one camera, as in the cartoon, the three toy robots are not identical, as the cartoon Reflector robots were (notwithstanding the camera lens on one robot of the trio). Hasbro also took the step of giving each of the individual robots names: Spectro (the red robot), Viewfinder (the middle robot), and Spyglass (the blue robot on the right of the camera). One imagines that if Hasbro had colored Spectro blue like the other two robots, the illusion of three nearly identical robots would have been more closely maintained, but Hasbro colored their version of Reflector pretty much the same as the Takara Microman version, which was created without the need for such considerations.

This isn’t to say that Hasbro didn’t bother creating anything new to make their version distinct from previous versions. In addition to creating a new sticker set with “Reflector” (instead of “Microx”) along the top and adding Decepticon faction symbols, Hasbro created full bio and tech specs to be included with Reflector’s instruction booklet. This is especially notable since Hasbro did not create tech specs for the previous mail-order exclusives. However, only tech specs for Reflector as a unit were created, as opposed to separate bios for Spectro, Viewfinder, and Spyglass. In fact, the tech specs for Reflector make absolutely no mention of the fact that the camera can split into three separate robots!

Each of the robots is roughly the same height, just under 4 inches tall. This makes them just barely taller than the average Action Master. Spectro and Spyglass both have die-cast metal chests, while Viewfinder has a die-cast metal core to which plastic features are attached on both front and back. All three robots have arm articulation at the shoulders, and both Spectro and Viewfinder have normal knee articulation (Spyglass has reverse-knee articulation, necessary for transformation.). All three robots have some form of hip articulation, as well (Viewfinder and Spyglass’s legs can bend either forward or backward, but Spectro’s legs only bend backward). In addition, all of the robots have chromed thighs, although most of this has flaked away in my specimen after roughly 20 years of wear and tear. Finally, it is worth noting that all three robots have distinct legs that can move independently of each other, a feature not to be taken for granted in Transformers of this era.

Transformation to camera mode is fairly simple. Each robot folds in half (Spectro and Viewfinder’s legs fold up behind the torso, while Spyglass’s legs fold up in front), and the Spectro and Spyglass are attached to either side of Viewfinder by aligning several pegs. Separate attachments for the lens and flashcube are then attached to the camera.

The resulting camera is about 2 1/4 inches tall (2 1/2” if measured to the top of the flashcube), too small to be considered a “life-sized” camera. The flashcube is chromed but, as with the robot thighs, this has mostly be worn away on my specimen. Camera features include a lens-and-mirror assembly inside Viewfinder that allows you to look through the back of the camera and see objects on the other side (though not very clearly), and a shutter at the top of Spectro’s head that allows you to push down with a reassuring “click” and “take a picture.” It should also be noted that the flashcube has a hole in the middle to insert a missile to be launched (theoretically, as Hasbro took the spring out) by pushing down at the top of the flashcube. The flashcube may also be used in Spyglass’ robot mode.

Reflector makes a wonderful display item, both for its rarity and for its place in Transformers history as a seldom-seen cartoon character.

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