Friday, March 23, 2007

Astrotrain and Airazor: Here at Last!

After two full years of the Official Transformer Club's existence, the first exclusive toys (not counting the freebies automatically sent with your membership) have finally arrived! I will now attempt to review them in my own peculiar fashion....

The first thing that simply has to be discussed is the packaging. It's certainly nice packaging. Sturdy. Attractive. Possibly as much a display item as the toys themselves. Modeled here with the assistance of my cat, Turtle, I'm sure that they'll make a nice addition to any Transformer collection.

But, to be honest, I'm a bit annoyed that these toys come with packaging at all. To judge from the posts on the club forums, I seem to be of a minority opinion on this matter. But I'm convinced that these nice packages add a considerable amount to what I had to pay to get these toys in the first place. Since Fun Publications, as a rule, never releases actual costs and figures for pretty much anything, we can really only guess how much this packaging costs, but back in the days of the former convention holder, packaging was said to make up as much as half of the expense of an exclusive toy (see question 9 at the old Transformers FAQ for my source). Now, there are several differences between these boxes and the ones that FP would create. For example, these are simple boxes with no window. Adding a transparent window is an extra expense in creating a box. However, the material here is much sturdier than some of the old boxes were (the packaging on the OTFCC 2003 exclusive set was apparently particularly bad). I don't know how all that shakes out, but I'm willing to guess that we paid at least an extra $20 in order to get these boxes (I figure guessing almost 20% of the total cost of toys is being generous, given that the old figure was 50%. I certainly assume FP is more efficient). I could have gotten two deluxe-sized retail Transformers for that money!

And I don't really care about having a nice package to add to my Transformers collection. I care about a nice Transformer to add to my Transformers collection! They provide nice storage for the toys, but they take up so much room! I have to figure out where in our apartment I can actually keep this stuff!

But, enough of that rant. Pete Sinclair says that the boxes are pretty much guaranteed to be a part of every club exclusive for the foreseeable future, so it doesn't sound like my attempts to make these things moderately affordable for fans is going to do any good. Let's move on to the toys themselves.

Astrotrain is the larger of the two items, and is a repaint of Armada Jetfire. This is a very attractive recolor, with one of the nicest remolded heads I've ever seen on an exclusive. While I agree with the people who have commented that, not being a triple-changer with a locomotive engine as one of his alternate modes, Astrotrain is not an especially accurate name for this toy, the colors, head, and space shuttle mode all combine to create a toy that homages the original G1 character very well, while having enough distinctives to be a character all his own.

Astrotrain comes with four Mini-Cons. All with less than terrific names: Starcatcher (and the powers-that-be really wanted to call it "Cowcatcher," which would have been a hundred times worse! Starcatcher's actually not so bad), Astro-Hook, Astro-Line, and Astro-Sinker. The last three were named as an homage to minor characters (named simply "Hook," "Line" and "Sinker") from the original Marvel comic. Although these toys have pretty much nothing in common with the original characters they are intended to homage, and the "Astro-" added to each name is pretty dippy, it's kind of cool that the club remembers such obscure names enough to homage them in the first place.

The other club exclusive just released is a pre-Beast Wars Airazor. This toy is a remold of Energon Slugslinger with a new head and an attractive orange-and-brown color scheme. The transformation for this figure is one of the most original I've ever seen, causing me to wonder if I'd be able to figure it out without the instructions when I first tried it. However, it's actually fairly intuitive. It does have some stability issues in both modes, though, which definitely detracts from the toy's playability. But I suppose that I'm supposed to just put these toys on display, rather than play with them. Both Astrotrain and Airazor have "Adult collectible, not intended for use by children" on the packages. I find this particularly odd given that, aside from the remolded heads, these are exactly the same molds as toys available for children only a few years ago. Not only that, but both packages have an extra "Ages 5+" sticker on them. But we move on....

Airazor is intended to compliment the BotCon 2006 set, which was also comprised of "pre-Beast Wars" characters. Hmmm.... Now I may need to figure out a way to fit Airazor into the Family Feud comic I did a couple of weeks back. ;)

Anyway, all in all, the toys are quite nice. Unfortunately, I'm not yet convinced that they're worth the price I paid for them, nor worth the many, many delays. Technically, these are to be considered the 2006 club exclusives. At one point in time, we were promised two club exclusives per year. Since these are the first, and they actually came out in 2007, it can safely be assumed that FP has not yet been able to set up a pattern of two toys per year yet in the two full years of their ownership of the club. Time will tell if FP can make good on 2007 exclusives this year. They're already pushing the limit on getting pre-registration forms up for BotCon 2007, which happens in just over three months. This is the make-it-or-break-it time for FP, and I wish I could say that I was more encouraged. I guess I'll have some time to think about it, though. I'll be out of town next week, and won't be making any further updates here until April 2nd. I do expect updates to my podcast, The Reflectionary, to continue preparations for Holy Week without interruption, however.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

At Your Service

(I haven't forgotten about Astrotrain and Airazor. I just still don't have them yet. The good news is that FedEx tells me that the package is on the truck being delivered today, so I'll either have them today, or I'll get one of those infuriating little notes that tells me that the delivery guy couldn't find me, which always is the case because, like many people, I actually work for a living, and I'm never at home during the hours that these things end up being delivered. Still, I should have them in time for a review on Friday... well after the rest of the Transformers world has already reviewed these things....)

Yesterday, I attended an all-day seminar on dealing with difficult or demanding customers. Between various people at all levels of seminary life, I've certainly had my share, and it was nice to get the opportunity to affirm things that I already knew and gain insights on new things that I might try in dealing with this perennial problem.

Oddly, thinking about this topic reminds me of my experience at several fast food restaurants in my area. I have, more times than I care to admit, been the "difficult" customer when at such restaurants, especially when the cashier has trouble understanding what I've just ordered (which seems to happen quite a bit).

On the flip side, there's a Burger King that I often go to for lunch (it's on Lake Avenue in Pasadena, for those who care) that has never failed to treat me well. The manager not only knows me by name, but knows that my "usual" is two Whopper Jrs. and a small Coke (A full meal for only $3.25, including tax!). Indeed, I occasionally find myself in the somewhat amusing position of having to stop her from ordering ahead for me as soon as she sees me in line if I want to order something unusual (this doesn't happen often).

Such friendly service is hard to find these days, especially at a fast food place. This Burger King should be commended for it.

Monday, March 19, 2007

More on The Music Man

Last year, I posted some thoughts on The Music Man, one of my favorite musicals, despite some outdated values espoused in the plot. This past weekend, my wife and I saw a stage version of the play performed by a friend's high school group (our friend is the drama director).

This is the second time I've seen a high school production of the play, the first time being over a decade ago when, just a couple of years out of high school, I went to see some friends in a production back at my alma mater. In that version, the role of Marian was played by a Japanese student who had been a fellow choir member. She had a fairly thick accent. To this day, I have no idea what vocal training she took, because as Marian, her accent was totally gone! It was very impressive.

The version we saw this weekend was impressive for different reasons, especially the ending in which the real high school band appeared out of nowhere up on the balcony after the lights went out on the kids playing on stage. I expect that was as close as it's possible for a stage production to get to the movie's "transformation" closing!

Naturally, the movie version and the stage version are somewhat different. Some scenes appear in different order, for example. Seeing a different version of the same story gave me an occasion to revisit the list of people I discussed last time, and to make some additions:

Mrs. Shinn: The mayor's wife. I mentioned in the section on the people of River City that Mrs. Shinn is "a self-important show-off," and when discussing Marian, I said that she considers the townspeople "to be fundamentally ignorant (or at least anti-intellectual)." While watching this version, and Mrs. Shinn's attempts to lead the other women in dance recitals featuring Indians and "Grecian urns," it hit me that Mrs. Shinn thinks of herself as an intellectual. But, not having gone through the process of actually learning anything properly about the stuff she's performing, she settles for the most banal stereotypes possible, in an effort to make herself look as intelligent to the others as possible.

Mayor Shinn: Is probably a good match for his wife. His constant use of malapropism seems to stem from a desire to use intelligent language, but he never quite gets it right. He needs to "watch his phraseology." ;)

Tommy Djilas (yes, I had to look that up!): This is the "hoodlum" who is going out with Mayor Shinn's daughter Zaneeta (where do they come up with these names, anyway?) against the Mayor's wishes. Although he is seen setting off firecrackers to disrupt one of Mrs. Shinn's recitals, this "hoodlum" doesn't really do anything wrong the rest of the story. Once taken under Professor Hill's wing, he in fact seems quite responsible, even collecting the money for the band uniforms and faithfully passing the money off to Hill (of course, Hill is a bit of a crook at this point, but Tommy's being a faithful steward!). I really should have mentioned Tommy the first time, as he is a prime example of the good that Professor Hill has done for this town.

Which, of course, always brings me back to Winthrop. Winthrop is my favorite character in this story, and his transformation during the "Wells Fargo Wagon" scene never fails to bring tears to my eyes. This might be, perhaps, even more impressive in this weekend's high school production, where Winthrop was played by a student who was (comically) taller than both his "mother" and his "older sister" Marian. At least he wasn't taller than Professor Hill, or Hill's line, "I'm bigger than you... so you might as well stop squirming," would have been rather embarrassing. This high school student deserves serious credit for playing a convincing young kid (in all but, and despite, his height).

All in all, a very enjoyable production. I really need to see plays like this more.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

(In case you're wondering, no, I haven't gotten Astrotrain and Airazor yet. But I do at least have a back-up entry ready this time....)

In a recent post on Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight posited his ideas of what the greatest fears are of three broad groups of Christians. Although the full article is worth reading, his general synopsis is:
  • Liberals fear intolerance of any kind, which pits them against conservatives and traditionalists, who have guidelines (some strict, some not so much, but present nonetheless) which, by necessity, keep some people "out."
  • Evangelicals fear change to what they consider central aspects of their faith. Even if they aren't "big C" conservatives, there will be some things that they hold to very tenaciously, and fear changing those things (note that "what they consider" is important here. Whether the aspect truly is "central" is up for debate).
  • Christians who consider themselves part of the "emerging church" do not have strong doctrinal leanings, but in fact borrow many practices from more traditional churches, giving them bits in common with both Liberals and Evangelicals. However, their greatest fear is centralized power and authority. Many have seen the abuses of power and authority all too often, and now have a deep mistrust of these.
Although one might quibble with the names given to each group (Why use the name "Liberals" if "Conservatives" isn't the corollary in the next category. But is "Progressives" any better? I'm not sure what name I'd use.), and with the particular fears McKnight cites (see the "comments" section on his blog to see what some other people think), I would agree that these three categories can be used to broadly describe the vast majority of Christians. No particular category is perfect, of course (the "emerging church" label is particularly difficult to define. In fact, some of the presuppositions of people in this movement dictate that this label will continue to defy a single, accurate, description for quite some time), but I expect that most would place themselves in one group or another.

And, let's be clear, I do think that self-labeling is more useful in this context than listening to how some other person thinks a particular group should be considered. For just one example, Fuller is often called "liberal" by those more conservative than we are, and "conservative" by those more liberal than we are. And, of course, some of our own professors have been advancing the "emerging church" movement. It would be very easy for someone to attribute motives and fears to people connected to Fuller that are, in fact, misrepresentations of who we are.

And, of course, as is the case with Fuller as an institution, people as individuals often fit more than one of these groups at the same time, perhaps depending on what issue we're talking about. So it's entirely fair to say that we may have fears about intolerance, and about changes to our core doctrines, and about potential abuses of power and authority, all at once--even if we most closely identify with just one of these three groups.

But there are questions here that are worth considering: What is the thing that we most fear, and what does that say about ourselves? Are these fears justified? Can we do anything about them? Should we?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Anticipation

Most of you who come to my blog for Transformers-related reasons don't come for "news" (even though I occasionally report such), since there are a lot of much better TF news sites out there. Rather, I expect you come for my particular take on the events happening in the TF world.

That makes a day like today rather frustrating, as reports have started coming in that the first club exclusives (not counting the free ones we get each year just for being members) are finally starting to arrive, but I have haven't gotten mine yet.

If I had, I'd have spent some time setting up pictures, working on a review of the toys, and generally giving you the "B-W version" of what I think of the toys. But since I don't have them yet, all I can do is guess... and wait.

In the meantime, I'm left with a regularly scheduled Wednesday blog post, and only filler material to write about.

If it helps, you can go to toysrus.com and get a $5 coupon that you can use this week on purchases over $25. Apparently you need to have a Windows computer to make it work, though....

Monday, March 12, 2007

Performance Anxiety

This past weekend, A Prairie Home Companion aired a show compiling clips from past episodes featuring opera singers. One particularly humorous clip featured a singer detailing a recurring dream whereby she was informed that she was late to a performance, shuttled by helicopter to the theater, rushed through all the pre-show preparations, and thrown on stage, all without ever knowing what opera she was supposed to perform that evening.

I'm no opera singer, but I've gotta say, that story sounded an awful lot to me like dreams I've often had over the years. I used to be fairly involved in both drama and in chorus. Although I've detailed some of my drama experience at Montreat (I've also done drama elsewhere, including an internship where my job was to incorporate drama into worship), I've barely mentioned my choir experience (except for a brief mention of how I had to miss the lion's share of a tour, when I was largely talking about something entirely different). I've had a number of dreams in both contexts where I've been in the middle of a performance, with no idea what I was supposed to be performing! It's quite unnerving.

Do all people with performance backgrounds have these kinds of anxiety dreams? I'm not sure, but it definitely allowed me to resonate with the sketch on the radio this weekend.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Blink and You'll Miss It

Between my time as student, and later as a member of the staff, I've been at Fuller Theological Seminary for just shy of a full decade. Throughout that time, one of the fixtures here has been the Prayer Garden. It's a little stone structure with ivy growing all over it. Inside there's a running fountain and places to sit and pray in a quiet atmosphere. It's been a bit of an oasis within the middle of the city of Pasadena. It's also been a particularly special place to me for a couple of reasons: 1) the stone structure and "natural" feel remind me a bit of my time at Montreat which, being in the middle of the North Carolina mountains, is a rather different environment than Southern California, 2) that white building you see behind and to the left of the Prayer Garden is an apartment building owned by the seminary, and I used to live in the studio apartment that opened up immediately behind the garden itself, granting me instant access to the Prayer Garden for several years.

I've heard conflicting stories, but it's my understanding that the Prayer Garden itself was constructed amidst a fair bit of controversy on campus. As I hear it, the original plan was to do a full Prayer Chapel, with a spire reaching up into the sky with a cross on top. The story is that this plan was scuttled by a Pasadena city code that forbade any new structures that would obstruct the view of the Pasadena City Hall, which is only a couple of blocks away. The Prayer Garden was built as a compromise.

Apparently that city code is no longer in force, since a parking structure was built a few years ago between the seminary and the City Hall with totally blocks the City Hall from our line-of-sight (the spire would never have blocked the view so completely!). Also, Fuller has, in recent years, added a program for Worship, Theology and the Arts, the plan for which includes the construction of a new chapel building in the Prayer Garden space (also taking out that apartment building I used to live in!).

Various preparation efforts have already started for the new constructions to begin soon on that side of campus (which also include an expanded library, something the seminary has needed for ages!). So I decided that I should probably take a picture of the Prayer Garden now, while it's still there. Nothing lasts forever, but it will be a sad time when this structure is finally gone.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Custom Action Master Power Plans: G2 Breakdown, "Diaclone" Bluestreak, and Stepper

A few years ago, I used to have a web site dedicated to archiving Action Master Power Plans. I did a few "custom" Power Plans during that time, inspired by some customs that I got from www.custommasters.com, but also including a few customs of my own. Although I took the site down, I still have the Plans, and will post a few of them here from time to time. Here are Plans for G2 Breakdown (the 2004 BotCon exclusive), "Diaclone" Bluestreak and Stepper (both my own customs). Click on the thumbnails for a better look.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Pre-Beast Wars Family Feud

Well, here it is! My first attempt at a photocomic, starring (most of) the 2006 BotCon exclusives. Enjoy!


































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Friday, March 02, 2007

Still a Ways to Go

A friend of mine just came back from a visit to Duke University the other day. She informs me that, when about to meet with one of the professors there, she perused the comics that were posted on his door, and came upon a certain familiar Top Ten list. This, in and of itself, wasn't so surprising. The list has circulated the internet a few times before I ever got it, and did so a few more times after I posted it for an International Women's Day event last year (side note: March 8 is right around the corner again. To learn more about International Women's Day, follow this link), and it subsequently appeared in an edited form in the Christian Century. What was surprising was that the list was credited to this blog. Once again, I'm amazed at the recognition that particular piece got. I wish I could take proper credit, but as I've said earlier, I got that from Dr. David Scholer, and he himself didn't actually write it, but got it elsewhere. Each of us has made an edit or two to fit our own purpose or context, and no doubt this will continue elsewhere. Anyway, this helped my friend to make a connection with the professor (whom she had not previously met), and I'm certainly happy about that.

While driving to work with my wife this morning, we were talking about some recent events that make it look like we're actually moving backward, rather than forward, when it comes to treating women with respect. For example, during a sermon my wife had to listen to while serving as a Teaching Assistant in a Homiletics class, one person made several particularly sexist comments that needed to be addressed, one smugly suggesting that his wife "didn't yet know" that certain housekeeping-related wedding gifts were intended more for her than for him. For another example, one of the contestants on last night's Survivor, while going off on a tirade, berated certain men for being too "sensitive" and specifically said that it was behavior that he'd previously seen or expected only in women. Let me tell you, his quickly adding "no offense" to his remarks did absolutely nothing to lessen the offensiveness of them.

Most people simply do not realize how deeply ingrained some of these sexist attitudes are. I can hear the responses already: "but men and women are different." Yes, they are. That does not make it acceptable to make statements about a person's behavior on the basis of that person's gender. If you are berating someone for behavior, specifically calling attention to the fact that you expect that behavior in women, how does that not berate women in general (even if said behavior is more common to women, which is debatable)?

I wish I could offer some kind of "magic solution" to this problem, but obviously it's not that simple. But I would definitely encourage people to stand up against people who make sexist statements like these. It's just not right, and only proves how far we still have to go before people are truly accepted for their own talents and abilities, rather than for expected stereotypes based solely on their gender.

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