Friday, October 31, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Ruckus

Last week, I mentioned that the club version of Nightbeat comes with a comic book. It's really great to have some official fiction to go with these toys. It's a major area that the club's been working on in the past year or so, and while I still think they have a ways to go, I want to give credit for the clear improvement that's taken place in this area. In fact, I enjoyed the story so much that it inspired me to pick up a G1 toy from eBay pretty much just because of the character's role in it.

That toy is Ruckus. Ruckus is a Triggercon. For most of the Generation One era, there were lots of assorted teams that went by names that were contractions of "Autobot" or "Decepticon" and some other term, usually connected to the team's main gimmick. "Dinobot" for example, is an obvious contraction of "dinosaur" and "Autobot." This happened all the time in Generation One, but is done very rarely, if at all, in the modern era (and most of the more modern examples are homages to Generation One itself).

In the case of the Triggercons, the main gimmick was that each robot had weapons that would flip up when a button--a trigger--was pressed. There were "Triggerbots" on the other side that used the exact same gimmick. In fact, I'm unaware of any gimmick that co-existed on both sides so precisely, so that "bots" and "cons" was the only difference between the two faction names.

Anyway, I got my specimen of Ruckus fairly cheaply because it's weapons don't actually hold in place very well, and the trigger button doesn't seem to do anything at all. I wasn't too worried about that, though. I'll play with Ruckus a bit, and then he'll go on display in robot mode, where I'll have the weapons deployed anyway.

FYI, this is my 600th post! Yay! Also, in case you're interested in the comic that came with Nightbeat, but don't want to buy Nightbeat itself, the comic is available by itself at the club store, and costs the same regardless of whether you're a member or not.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's Official: David Tennant's Days as the Doctor are Numbered

A lot of us saw this coming, but it's now official: David Tennant will be stepping down as the Doctor in Doctor Who after the series of "specials" in 2009.

Here's the interview in which I found out, myself.

Naturally, this will start up the speculation once again: who will be the new Doctor? How will Tennant's incarnation (the tenth) meet his end? Will fans of Tennant's interpretation give the new person a chance?

After Christmas, those questions take on a new dimension: The special scheduled for airing on Christmas Day is called "The Next Doctor" and features David Morrissey as another Doctor. But is Morrissey's Doctor really the next one? Even if he is, will the events of that very special (let alone events in the four specials still to come before Tennant's departure) negate Morrissey's timeline?

Another big question: Will the remaining specials ever get around to showing us the future hinted at this past year, in which it is revealed that Professor River Song is destined to become very important to Tennant's Doctor in the future?

I eagerly await the answers....

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spread the Wealth and Share the Well

As the presidential election enters into its final week, there's been a lot of talk about Obama's comment to "Joe the Plumber" that "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." John McCain pounced on this in the final debate, and he and running-mate Sarah Palin have practically made "spread the wealth around" a mantra for attacks against their Democratic opponents. Crises of "socialism" usually follow pretty closely.

This is a deep issue for many voters. People don't like to feel that money is going to be taken from them to be given to people they don't know, especially if they feel that they have no say in how that money will be redistributed.

I've heard cries of "socialism" before. As I've said on at least one occasion, "socialism" has to do with the “public control of the basic means of production, distribution, and exchange, with the avowed aim of operating for use rather than for profit.” What people don't seem to realize when they make these accusations, obviously intending "socialism" to be a term of attack, designed to make voters afraid of a certain candidate or party, is that pretty much every politician currently in office advocates for some form of progressive tax system (which is the context in which Obama's remarks were made in the first place). That is to say, people who make more money are taxed at a higher rate than people who make less money. This is, it could be argued, a mild form of "socialism" (although very mild, and as the previous link will attest, few people would use the word in that way). It's been this way for many decades now, having extremely widespread support among both conservatives and liberals. The United States government practices "socialism" (with a very small "s") to this extent all the time, and McCain's proposed tax system is no exception. It is therefore disingenuous for him and Palin to throw that word at Obama so relentlessly.

Here is an excerpt from an interesting article on the subject written by economist Chuck Collins:
What I’d really like to see is a parade of all the people who benefited from the massive “spread the wealth” programs in the 30 years after World War II.

Envision this: Millions of people –- mostly white -– holding up signs saying “Low Interest Home Mortgage” or “Free College Education” or “Food Stamps and Health Care Helped Me Live Past 60.”

There would be millions of people from John McCain’s generation, lives transformed by public investments in educational and economic opportunity. The banner at the head of the parade would read, “Thanks America for Spreading the Wealth.”

There is room, of course, for debate about just how the American tax system should be worked out. More to the point, how much should we "spread the wealth"? It is not my intention to hash out those details. I do feel the need to point out, however, that besides being supported by many members of both major political parties, spreading the wealth is actually biblical! For just one quick example, Leviticus 19:9-10 makes this command of the people of God: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.... Leave them for the poor and the foreigner." The Bible again and again commands people to share what they have with those who have little.

When I was in Montreat this past summer, one of the more popular "energizers" was built upon a song by Caedmon's Call: "Share the Well" (Here's a video of the energizer from a few weeks before I was actually there). The lyrics of this song talk about "spreading the wealth" in a literal and a metaphorical manner, both appropriate to a Christian setting such as a PC(USA) Youth Conference. Here are some of the words:
You know I've heard good people say
There's nothing I can do
That's half a world away
Well maybe you've got money
Maybe you've got time
Maybe you've got the Living Well
That ain't ever running dry

Share the well
Share with your brother
Share the well, my friend
It takes a deeper well
To love one another
Share the well, my friend
There's plenty of room for debating just how much a citizen's wealth should be "spread around," and how much of that should be at the hands of the government, but let's at least stop using the phrase "spread the wealth around" as if it is a bad thing to be avoided. It is God's command to us as Christians!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fighting Racism with Laughter

Another quickie. In light of recent events, I want to share this poem, called White Flour, written by David LaMotte about a creative alternative to fighting racism (based on a true story, by the way). Here's just a small part. It's written in a Dr. Seuss-like rhyming meter, but the child-like tone belies a very serious message.
"White power!” screamed the marchers, and they raised their fisted hands
The clowns leaned in and listened like they couldn’t understand
Then one held up his finger and helped all the others see
The point of all this yelling, and they joined right in with glee
“White flour!” they all shouted and they felt inside their clothes
They pulled out bags and tore them and huge clouds of powder rose
They poured it on each other and they threw it in the air
It got all over baggy clothes and multi-colored hair
All but just a few of them were joining in the jokes
You could almost see the marchers turning red beneath white cloaks
They wanted to look scary, they wanted to look tough
One rushed right at the clowns in rage, and was hauled away in cuffs
I really recommend reading the whole thing. This is a message that needs to get out.

UPDATE: And it is getting out! A book is set to be released on May 26th, 2012!

From PC(USA) Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow - Code-words People Should Really Stop Using

I sometimes feel that I harp on the issue of "being fair to each other" to the point of repetition. So, I'll keep this brief. The following comes from PC(USA) moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow's blog. He's commenting on our (specifically, PC(USA) Christians, although I'm sure it applies elsewhere) well-refined art of verbal attack:

SHOT: "We are striving for Biblical faithfulness."
READ: "Our reading and interpretation of the Bible is the right one and, not only is your interpretation wrong, you probably are not even faithful in your reading."

SHOT: "We are loving, thoughtful and welcoming."
READ: "You are only driven by hate and ignorance . . . and you probably REALLY like injustice."
There are some real divisions in our denomination right now. It's understandable that lines are being drawn and tempers are short. Even so, we really must work harder at treating each other with charity and respect. As the hymn says, "They'll know we are Christians by our love." If that love isn't present, how will "they" know?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Schuller Family Squabble Affects "Hour of Power"

I was a bit surprised yesterday to find this very brief news article.

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (AP) - Crystal Cathedral founder Rev. Robert H. Schuller has removed his son as preacher on the church's weekly "Hour of Power" syndicated TV broadcast.

Schuller said in a statement read to some 450 congregants Saturday by church president Jim Coleman that he and his son, Robert A. Schuller, "have different ideas as to the direction and the vision for this ministry."

"For this lack of shared vision and the jeopardy in which this is placing this entire ministry, it has become necessary for Robert and me to part ways," Schuller said.

Robert A. Schuller will remain as senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, though it was unknown whether he will continue to preach, a church spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.

The elder Schuller said in the statement that he was bringing in guest pastors to preach during the show.

Church officials did not return messages left Saturday seeking comment from Robert A. Schuller and details about what prompted the schism between him and his father.

Robert H. Schuller had turned over the church ministries and the "Hour of Power" TV program to his son during an emotional service at the Crystal Cathedral in January 2006.

I looked a bit on the web yesterday for more information, but that was the entirety of what I could find, despite the article appearing at multiple sites. My first reaction to seeing the headline: "Crystal Cathedral TV preacher removed by father," was that the younger Schuller had committed some indiscretion that required he be quietly removed from the ministry. When I read the article, that impression changed to concerns that the elder Schuller has ego issues.

This morning, I found a bit more (click for the full article):

The schism between the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his son at Orange County's Crystal Cathedral arose over a disagreement about broadening the church's long-running television show, "Hour of Power," beyond a single personality -- a move opposed by the younger Schuller, pastors involved in the matter said Sunday.
That definitely works in the opposite direction, in terms of who's having the ego problems. I'm still a bit unsure what to think. On the one hand, I wish that the elder Schuller had come up with this decision to "broaden" the ministry a long time ago. If he's really serious about ensuring that the program isn't about a single name (his own, not his son's, which is of course the same name save for one initial), this comes a little late for my tastes.

I'm also a bit concerned by the following:

"I was called to start a mission, not a church," Schuller told his audience Sunday. "There is a difference. . . . You don't try to preach . . . what is sin and what isn't sin. A mission is a place where you ask nonbelievers to come and find faith and hope and feel love. We're a mission first, a church second."

I'm more than a bit distrustful of the move to argue that the "Hour of Power" is something other than a church service, and the justification for not talking about sin. It's not that I think churches should focus unduly on sin. Indeed, I'm more than a little bothered by the "front-and-center" focus that sin (and particular sins, at that) receives in many evangelical churches. But talking about sin remains an essential part of what Christianity is. It doesn't really matter that we're "saved" if there's no understanding of what we're saved from. Christ's death on the cross holds little meaning for Christians if we don't realize how much we needed it!

Of course, I'm not unbiased when it comes to Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral, as anyone who read the entry written when the elder Schuller passed the reigns to the younger one two years ago (and the comments below it) will attest.

If the newer article is indeed a fair representation of what's happening, then I really have no serious criticism. Even a church should be about the mission of Jesus Christ, and not about the personality of the pastor. I have my doubts about the motives, but trust that God's will can shine through this change regardless.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Club Exclusive Nightbeat

Transformers fans younger than the Generation One era probably scratch their heads a bit at why the character of Nightbeat is so popular. The original toy is fairly unremarkable even by Generation One standards, he never showed up in the cartoon, and the fact that he was a Headmaster was utterly ignored in his few US comic appearances (unless you count his "Transformers Universe" profile page). The UK comic did use Nightbeat's Headmaster partner, Muzzle, on one occasion, but that's pretty much it.

But those few appearances Nightbeat made in the comic books left an indelible impression on fans old enough to remember reading them back in the late 80's. Nightbeat was the Autobots' resident gumshoe. A detective along the lines of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, Nightbeat's first stories in the UK and US comic lines, "The Big Shutdown!" (UK) and "Bird of Prey!" (US) are themselves homages to The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, respectively. Nightbeat has been fondly remembered ever since, and is a natural choice for a fan club exclusive.

Nightbeat Robot ModeThe club version of Nightbeat was created using the mold of Energon Hot Shot, giving it a new head. This new head is, itself, the victim of a bit of an unfortunate misunderstanding. The original Nightbeat wore a helmet with fairly distinctive "ears" created by attaching the vehicle-mode guns on either side (a feature Nightbeat held in common with all three Autobot Headmasters released in 1988). The new Nightbeat head was sculpted to include these "ears," as well, but when the toy was being created in the factory, someone there decided that the "ears" wouldn't allow the figure to transform properly, and so the decision was unilaterally made to remove them from the mold, and the club owners had little say in the matter (it is debatable whether or not the ears would have actually been such a problem as the factory decided, but there was nothing to be done about it).

Nightbeat Vehicle ModeThe club version of Nightbeat is unique among club exclusives released so far in that the toy was shipped with a comic book featuring the character. Entitled "Cheap Shots," we see Nightbeat and a few other Autobots (and several Nebulans, noteworthy for getting more characterization here than they ever did in the original Marvel comic despite most not actually being attached to their respective partners as Headmasters anymore) embroiled in yet another mystery.

Nightbeat combined with DownshiftUsing the same mold as Energon Hot Shot, Nightbeat has the ability to combine with other Energon Autobot molds, although this feature is not mentioned on any of Nightbeat's instructions. Here is an image of Nightbeat combined with Energon Downshift. I had to try out the feature just once "because I could," but to be honest, I'll probably never transform Nightbeat this way again. I'll just leave him in one of his canonical forms.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Computers in the Classroom

I've been auditing a Presbyterian Creeds course here at Fuller, attending once a week for about a month now. I'm hoping to brush up on my knowledge of the confessional statements of the denomination in preparation to take an ordination exam this February. The professor of the course, Dr. John Thompson, is one that I've known for about a decade now (dating back to when I originally took this same course for credit in 1998), and besides being extremely well-versed in matters of historical theology, he is one of the most computer-literate professors on campus.

One of the ways in which Dr. Thompson's computer literacy is on display in this class is through his use of an online tool called Moodle. Through a password-protected server accessible only to those involved in the course, Dr. Thompson can post outlines, PowerPoint slides, schedules for classroom assignments, and students can actually submit their work electronically. This work is then graded and the results are returned privately to the student through the Moodle site. This cuts down on the amount of paper used for the class considerably, and allows for much faster feedback on work than has historically been the case.

Needless to say, Moodle wasn't available when I originally took the course 10 years ago. Laptops weren't as common an occurrence in classrooms back then, either, although they certainly were available. Between the greater affordability of laptops today and the online Moodle materials, most students today have their laptop with them in class. I, for one, have been rather glad to have the ability to take my notes using a word processing program, as opposed to writing with a pen or pencil. My handwriting is rather poor, especially when I'm trying to write quickly (as is often necessary in class), and it's much easier for me to look back at my typewritten notes days later (let alone months or years!) and remember what the heck I was trying to write about.

But having laptops in the classroom isn't entirely a good thing. I was pretty annoyed during class this week to find that a student sitting in front of me was playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on an emulator on his laptop instead of listening to the lecture! On one hand, of course I'm indignant that a person who presumably paid several hundred dollars for the privilege of taking this class is throwing away that opportunity by playing games during class time, but even more annoying to me personally is that I'm being distracted by the game that's taking place just off to the corner of my line of sight when I'm trying to pay attention to the lecture!

From what I can tell from other professors in my role as a staff person, this is hardly an isolated incident. Some professors don't allow computers in their classrooms at all because of the potential for distractions. I'm pretty sympathetic to that impulse, but would regret losing the positive benefits that the computers provide.

Ultimately, I think that each student should have the right to exercise his or her own judgment. If students want to, in essence, throw away the money they paid to attend class by playing a video game, that's their business. However, I do draw the line when such individual freedom impedes my own ability to learn. Show some respect for the rest of us! Sit in the back of the classroom if you want to play around on your computer, but let the rest of us do what we came here to do without such distractions, please!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Family Conflicts and Deal-Breakers

Fuller alum Erika Carney Haub writes a blog that deals with issues arising out of living in inner city Los Angeles. I've mentioned her before, and have continued to read through her reflections regularly. Recently, she discussed "deal-breakers" that can become "land-mines" when discussing often contentious political issues (I have to confess, this particular entry caught my attention because of the title: "Deal or No Deal." Unfortunately for me, there was nothing in there at all mentioning the popular game show. It's a good entry anyway!).

Erika's "land-mines" seem to be similar to what I've written about in the past, only I've called them "red flags." I've written quite a few entries over the years imploring people to be more reasonable or fair in our theological and/or political discussions, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that in this particularly hostile campaign season, I'm especially concerned about how volatile our nation's attitude has often become. This is no merely academic pursuit for me. Many members of my own family hold wildly different opinions from my own on many issues, and I find it increasingly difficult to even want to be around them for very long, lest our discussions devolve into hostile ranting on issues where we simply cannot agree, and all too often it seems we cannot even "agree to disagree" in a civil fashion.

It is often said that we should work to find common ground on those matters on which we do agree, such as the fact that (in my family, for example) most of us are indeed Christians. I agree with this advice to a point, but find that it is not a workable solution at all times and in all places. I expect that part of the reason for this is similar to what Erika gets at in reflecting on the situations in which she finds herself:
I know that for me, there are many things I am willing to shut up about. I may hold an opposing viewpoint or feel like a decision is a poor one, or simply think a different approach would be better, but for many things I can submit pretty easily. But I have discovered that, not surprising, I have some deal-breakers just as we all do. And when these beliefs or principles are stepped on, my reaction is very, very different.
Erika argues that the only way to try to prevent "deal-breakers" from becoming "land-mines" is to work on discussing these deep issues. She's specifically thinking about multi-cultural church dialogue, but I think the principle can be applied elsewhere. In a completely unrelated discussion, Rev. Mark D. Roberts comments on the observation that a church is often like a family. Far from meaning that church members should always get along, Roberts notes that this similarity includes the various disagreements and conflicts that families often experience.
It's certainly true that, even within my own family, I have relatives who live in contexts that--being vastly different from my own--cannot help but give them different perspectives on various issues.

So, there it is. I know more or less what the problem is, and I know (at least in theory) what I ought to do about it. But to be perfectly honest, the prospect of being so open with my family about my true theological/political leanings terrifies me. I've certainly tried to give them "clues" to what I think about many issues. I think my family knows that I try to find middle ground and to seek to understand even those whom I disagree with. But there are so many members of my family that seem to have such raw hatred for certain political parties, politicians, or Christians who don't wholeheartedly agree with them on some "deal-breaker" issue, that I think I have good reason to fear that they will apply that hatred to me if they fully understood just how far from agreement I am with them on some of those issues. Far from bringing us all closer to justice by standing up for what I think is right, and successfully arguing for my values, I fear that I will just end up bruised and battered, with no positive result having been gained for my troubles.

To tell the truth, there is a sense in which I find it easier to have such discussions or disagreements with members of my church. As much like a family as a church is supposed to be, a disagreement with a church member doesn't hit so close to the core of my being. Also, it's easier to leave a church (however bad an idea that might be) than it is to leave a family. And I really don't want to leave my family. For all of our disagreements, I care about them a great deal. But they truly can be hard people to live with, sometimes!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Prayer Request for Christians in Iraq

I don't often talk about the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world. Truth be told, I've come to treat those who talk about this reality (and it is a reality) with more than a little skepticism. I think part of the reason for this is that usually the topic seems to be brought up by people who want to argue that they are being oppressed for their faith, as well--despite living in the undeniably more Christian-friendly environment of the United States. However much non-believers may mistrust or ridicule us in this country, most Christians here have had nothing like the persecution such as is described below.

But the arguably mixed motives of my fellow American Christians is no excuse to ignore the suffering that Christians elsewhere must endure, so I'm copying these letters written by the General Assembly leaders of the PC(USA), the denomination I call "home." You can find out a bit more about the situation by reading this article from the Presbyterian News Service.
from Linda, Gradye and Bruce

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki:
We write to you today out of a grave sense of concern for the Christian community of Mosul. As any other minority in Iraq, they should be defended against the recent terrorist acts, which seem intended to eliminate the Christian presence in the region.
News reports, and the personal accounts of members of the Iraqi Presbyterian church, have drawn particular attention to the escalating violence against Christians in that region, as over two dozen Christians have been killed (others have been wounded), and more than 1,000 Christian families have fled the city.
We are grateful for your intervention which sent additional police to Mosul, ordered an investigation into the attacks on Christians, and pledged to take all steps to protect the Christians of that area. Early reports indicate that your steps have diminished the violence.
The Christian community in Mosul is one of the oldest in the world. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a long history of engagement with Iraqi Christians, dating back to the early 1800’s, with a special emphasis on education, health care, and social service to all Iraqis as well as on church development. But both before and since our connections with our sisters and brothers there, Christians have been an integral part of the history and culture of your country.
Our church’s General Assembly, this past June, adopted a call of concern for all the people of Iraq, urging our members to:
“Pray for, call for, and work for a just and peaceful future for the nation and people of Iraq which includes the establishing of a just, stable, and democratic government and the timely departure of U.S. military forces and their contractors as soon as it is possible to leave the nation in an appropriately stable, just, and self-sustaining form."
We are grateful for your efforts to establish a just and peaceful future for the nation and people of Iraq. As you continue these efforts, we ask that you ensure the security of Christians within your nation. The situation in Mosul is very desperate. Along with the rest of the world we are watching and praying that you will move to restore order.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly
Linda Valentine, Executive Director, General Assembly Council
Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, Office of the General Assembly

from Linda, Gradye and Bruce

We are profoundly alarmed by the reports coming out of Iraq of the increasing, targeted acts of terror and violence against Christians in Mosul.
We lament the violence and destruction that have been happening in Iraq since the beginning of the war. This latest news of what appears to be religious cleansing adds yet another layer of concern.
The roots of Christianity in Mosul are deep, going back to ancient times. An Iraq without a Christian presence is contrary to what has historically made the Iraqi society a model of harmonious inter-religious relations, and portends a future marked by intolerance and fanaticism.
Word that the government of Iraq has increased its security forces in Mosul to help stem this most recent violence is encouraging. We have sent a letter to the Iraqi leadership, calling on them to continue efforts to protect all Iraqi citizens – Christians and Muslims – from acts of terror and violence that are aimed toward the systematic destabilization of the country.
We call on Presbyterian leaders and leaders of other religious communities to work together as people of faith to continue to teach, encourage and practice tolerance toward people of faith traditions other than their own.
We also continue our call to the United States government to take responsibility for supporting the Iraqi government as it establishes a just, stable, and democratic government.
Our concern for the safety and well-being of Christians stretches beyond Iraq to India, China, and other parts of the world where violence and an attitude of religious intolerance are present.
Wherever such an attitude is present – regardless of the religious affiliation or motives of those who hold it – humanity is diminished and the reality of God’s peaceable realm is pushed farther away.
Please join us in continued prayers for peace and the safety of all people – and especially for Christian brothers and sisters who are living under the threat and reality of violence.

Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly
Linda Valentine, Executive Director, General Assembly Council
Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, Office of the General Assembly

Monday, October 20, 2008

Reflections on Worship: Scholer Memorial and Other Special Gatherings

I'm currently auditing a course on Presbyterian Creeds in an effort to prepare to retake the ordination exam that gave me trouble over half a decade ago. There are several reasons why I'm getting back into this now, but that's a subject for another time. I bring it up here to mention that one of the aspects of Reformed theology (and specifically that of John Calvin) that has been emphasized in the course is the fact that the primary purpose of worship is to give God what God is due--what God is worth (The word "worship," itself, comes from an Old English word that is, essentially, "worth-ship"). We gather together for worship because, put simply, God deserves it. This is the primary consideration, well before any attention is to be given to what we, as humans "get out of" the service.

David Scholer Memorial ProgramThis reality can be obscured even at the best of times, but I expect that it's a particularly difficult thing to keep in mind for worship gatherings clearly scheduled for some obvious "other" purpose. An example may be drawn from the memorial service Fuller had for David Scholer last week (Despite David's passing more than a month ago, the memorial service had to wait for classes to begin on campus, and for a few other items to be taken care of first). I had a unique window into the planning of this service, as my wife is Assistant Director of Chapel at Fuller, and was specifically charged with planning out and executing the details of this event (on top of all that, she also was asked to give the homily! Needless to say, she was pretty exhausted when it was all over Thursday afternoon!).

A funeral or a memorial service has the obvious purpose of providing a space for remembering the person who has died, and to provide an outlet for grief. Allowing these purposes to take priority is an obvious temptation, and as positive and beneficial as they are, it would still be the wrong thing to do. This is still a worship gathering. A worship gathering's primary purpose must always be to give glory to God.

When the person being remembered was such a strong Christian as David Scholer, a person who let God be seen in his life in so many ways, it becomes much easier to keep those priorities straight. God is glorified through the actions of David's life and ministry, and such a service may draw attention to this with little difficulty. (Fuller has put up an article describing the service, with several quotes from the various speakers, here.)

But I wonder about how giving glory to God may be given priority when the subject of a funeral may not have been a Christian, or when the course of the person's life is more ambiguous. I also wonder about how giving God glory may be given properly central attention in other "special" services, such as a wedding (especially if the couple has a less-than-clear Christian commitment), or if the more mundane Sunday gatherings actually pose the most difficulty of all simply because of the day-to-day "sameness" to it all.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Club Exclusive Seacon Set

Exactly a week ago, I got my 2008 Official Transformers Collectors' Club exclusives in the mail. I'll deal with Nightbeat next week, since there's more than enough to talk about in regard to the Seacons alone. Indeed, I was tempted to break up this entry into multiple parts, but ultimately couldn't justify an organic way to do so without doing six separate listings, which would get more than a little monotonous over time. But first things first. A year ago this past March, when the first club exclusives arrived, I snapped a shot of the toys in their boxes modeled by my cat, Turtle. Such traditions must be maintained, so here's the ceremonial cat-shot.

The Seacons are exclusives that started out (as with Astrotrain last year) as proposed exclusives for a retail chain, but when the retail chain decided that they didn't want to bother with the idea anymore, the proposal was left in limbo. Fans were told at a convention in 2004 that these toys would be coming out as part of the then-current Energon toy line, and fans have been clamoring for a club release ever since that promise fell through. Although this version of the Seacon team was expected in 2004, the molds date back to 1988, and so a history lesson on the nature of most Generation One combiners is in order. Back then, most combiners were designed in what has come to be called "Scramble City" style (so-named after the Japanese cartoon that featured this form of combiner). Each team consisted of one larger "leader" figure, which would invariably form the core of the combined robot, and several interchangeable "limb" figures. In the case of the Seacons, Snaptrap (pictured at the left) is the "larger 'leader' figure."

Snaptrap transforms from a robot to a robotic sea turtle. A particular feature of Snaptrap is the "pom-pom cannon." Basically, you can move that tab on top of Snaptrap's back to make the cannons move in-and-out repeatedly. A simplistic feature by modern standards, but pretty cool if you're a kid in the 1980's.

Most "Scramble City"-style combiner teams had five members: one leader and four "limbs." This makes sense. Humanoid creatures have two arms and two legs. Four limbs. So four is pretty much the right number of smaller "limb" robots. The Seacons were (and are) different. This team has six members. One leader and five smaller "limb" robots! From left to right, this is Overbite, Seawing, Skalor, Nautilator, and Tentakil.

There were a couple of non-"Scramble City" combiner teams that also had six members, but in these cases, there was no particular team member larger than the others, and so more than one robot was used to form the "core" of the combined form. That's not the case here. In true "Scramble City" fashion, Snaptrap clearly forms the core of the combined form, and the others each can turn into a limb, and limbs remain interchangeable (They also have an "attack mode" with weapons attached, as is also common for most "Scramble City" limb robots). So what's going on here? Does the combined form somehow have three arms or something?

It should come as no surprise, even to non-Transformers fans, that the answer to that question is "no." Instead, the designers of the Seacons decided to tap into then-current "Targetmaster" gimmick, and worked it out so each of the "limb" Seacons also turned into a weapon. (Obviously, the toys aren't in the same order this time. This is because I took this picture at a different time than I took the others, and didn't think to make sure the order remained the same. Sorry!) One of these weapons--whichever robot wasn't forming an arm or a leg--could now be held by the combined robot.

The combined form, Piranacon, is formed by combining Snaptrap with any four of the smaller figures and adding on a few extra parts (such as fists and footplates). It may be worth noting that, although the instructions do suggest a particular "default" for which smaller robots should form which limbs, all the images on the box the Seacons came in and the box artwork itself display a different variation (Skalor and Nautilator are swapped). I also found that I couldn't get the sword to point straight if I used it on the Seawing limb, so I further swapped the sword and Overbite-as-weapon around from what those images consider "correct." There are several other ways you can use the weapons, too (and these images don't even begin to do any limb-swapping!).

I do have a few small quibbles (I wish that the set included instructions for all of the individual components, instead of just instructions for Piranacon, but it's easy enough to find instruction scans at Botch's site), but I still recommend this figure quite strongly. The club just announced yesterday that there are less than 100 of the Seacon sets still available at the Official Transformers Collectors' Club Shop (of 1500 made available), so if you're on the fence about getting these, you'd do well not to wait any longer. If you're not a club member, you'll notice a "non-member" price, but don't let that fool you. It's just adding the cost of membership on to the cost of the figure, meaning that you not only would get this set, but all the other stuff that membership offers. If you live in the US (prices are demonstrably higher for folks who live overseas), I suggest considering it. If becoming a member doesn't interest you, you're also welcome to place a bid on the extra one I got (from a combination of over-caution on my part and generosity on the part of someone else), which I've put for sale on eBay. I'm offering free shipping, and will donate 10% of the auction total to Kiva, which I've discussed here in the past.

UPDATE: 8:56 pm. They seem to be sold out from the club store now.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Poll Results: Inconclusive

Last week, I tried an experiment. Victorysabre, a stalwart member of the Transformers Club, tried to do a poll asking about what type of toy/character the club ought to do for their next exclusive. Unfortunately, the poll only allowed people one, and only one, choice among eleven different options. With so many choices available, so many of which seemed very similar to each other, this could hardly hope to yield a meaningful result. Having admitted this inadequacy in the first attempt, I thought I might try the same poll over here, where I would be able to allow members to choose more than one choice if they wanted to. I left a link to this new version in the thread containing the original poll, hoping that interested members would give it a look.

Unfortunately, my results are no more meaningful than the original version.

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that the thread containing the poll was moved from the forum in which it was originally created to the "Feedback" forum on the club site. This is actually where such a thread should go, but it doesn't get quite as many members to visit it (at least, anecdotally speaking). The thread was also "stickied," which is to say that it was given a mark to ensure that it would remain at the top of that forum. This is actually intended to ensure that the thread isn't lost, but it's my feeling that it has the exact opposite effect. I know that I tend to ignore stickied threads, mostly because they stay at the top long after any new information has been added which would make them relevant. It may also be that the original thread had simply run its course, and no one cared about my continued attempt.

In any event, there are only 4 responses (hardly a representative sampling), and all but four of the elevent choices got exactly one click. Of those four, two got two clicks, and two got no clicks.

There's simply not much I can report on the basis of such information, except perhaps that polls are perhaps not a productive endeavor for this blog at the moment. If anyone has any thoughts or ideas on what might be more useful, please feel free to share them by clicking the "comments" link.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008: PEG (Proyecto para las Escuelas Guatemaltecas)

About a week and a half ago, I went to what will probably be the final live David LaMotte concert I will ever see. As I announced last year, LaMotte is retiring from full-time singing/songwriting to devote his life to peacemaking work. He has received a fellowship from Rotary International to study in Australia and get his master's degree, and so he, his wife Deanna, and soon-to-be-born son will be moving there in just a few months to live for at least the next two years.

(Before I continue, I have to confess that, despite my efforts and intentions, the fact that David was out here in Southern California ultimately had nothing to do with me at all. I just lucked out in that a "house concert" group in Agoura Hills had managed to arrange for him to come to the area. The concert was literally in someone's living room, with only some 40-or-so people in attendance. Still, I knew I couldn't miss this last opportunity.)

Part of the reason LaMotte won the fellowship to study in Australia is due to something that happened during David and Deanna's honeymoon in Guatemala, where they had planned to study Spanish in an immersion program. While visiting a local school there, David had a conversation with the principal, who took him on a "grand tour" of the meager surroundings. David was shown the well from which students and teachers drew water, and the bathrooms in another part of the campus. The principal commented that it was a dream of his to someday be able to connect plumbing from the well to the bathroom, so that it would have running water. As the conversation continued, it became clear that the cost to set this up would be just $125. As David told us during the concert. "$125? I'm a songwriter, and I can do that!" But for this school, where the only part of running the school paid for by the government was the teachers' salaries, such a sum had to be raised from within the community. This meant that if the school wanted to provide food, add on to (or repair!) their building (a working kitchen was another deeply felt need), or even buy textbooks, that money had to raised by the school itself. For this reason, many Guatemalan schools have no textbooks at all. While $125 may have been the kind of sum that a songwriter could just write a check for and be done with it, it quickly became apparent that the needs outweighed what LaMotte could actually contribute to responsibly.

So, after the LaMottes returned from their honeymoon, David had a few concerts, and he told his audiences about what he discovered in Guatemala. They contributed pocket change, and before long, the school David had been at was able to provide running water, a working kitchen, and basic textbooks. Some of that story can be found here. The generosity of those first few post-honeymoon concerts grew into a non-profit specifically for helping Guatemalan schools: Proyecto para las Escuelas Guatemaltecas (or PEG, for short).

As David told us during that concert, "This idea that the problems are too big... That we can't make a difference? I don't buy that!" We can make a difference. Project by project, bit by bit, to be sure. But the lives of hundreds of Guatemalan children have been greatly improved just because one person decided to do what he could about a situation he became aware of. He and his wife were just going there to learn some Spanish. They had no idea that they'd be starting a non-profit. Sometimes life just works like that.

So, anyway, I took advantage of my last opportunity to talk with David by buying a box set of his CDs (most of which I had already, but some only on audio cassette) and getting his autograph one last time. I'll miss hearing new songs of his, but I can hardly complain. Eighteen years is quite the career, and his new calling is most definitely a worthy one. I wish him well. You can donate to PEG at their web site, and follow the new endeavors of David LaMotte via his blog: "World Changing 101."

Monday, October 13, 2008

How Do You Persuade People to Care About Facts?

One thing I find myself bothered by, again and again, is the fact that so many people seem unwilling to be persuaded by facts. By this statement, I don't simply mean the undeniable reality that two intelligent people, when presented with the same series of facts, may well come up with two entirely different conclusions or opinions on an issue. That's a sometimes difficult fact of life, but one that I'm pretty content to live with. Here, I'm talking about those people holding a strong belief about a matter who, when presented with facts that make their position impossible to sustain, continue to hold the same belief. Their belief isn't wrong, they seem to say, the facts are wrong!

We run into this quite a lot in the world of theological studies, for example. If the Bible and science are believed to be at odds on a given matter, it is reasoned, science must be wrong. But even that's not quite what I want to talk about here. As much as I may disagree with the premise (that the interpretation of the Bible is at times irreconcilable with scientific inquiry), I have respect for the act of taking the Bible seriously.

This anecdote from Slacktivist gets at the issue fairly well:
...I had occasion to consult Snopes [in response to a disagreement with] an acquaintance who is, in many ways, a likable enough person. But he also seems to hear and absorb a lot of information that ain't necessarily so.
This time it had to do with Target, the nationwide discount retail chain. He refuses to shop at Target because they hate veterans. I hadn't heard that. It seemed implausible, since hating on veterans would be just about the most self-destructive PR strategy one could imagine for a retail chain. Plus I know a lot of veterans and I've never heard about this from any of them. Those I know best, in fact, shop at Target all the time.
But OK, I said, let's look it up. And we went to Snopes and there it was. Snopes explains that this rumor is not true. They provide the background of the rumor and trace its history back to a single e-mail from a single person. They cite that person and his retraction and apology. They cite official statements from Target and evidence of the company's support for veterans' causes. They cite veteran's groups gratefully attesting to that support. This is all sourced and linked back to sources and in general a devastatingly thorough and altogether Snopes-like job of debunking and rebutting the rumor.
The result of this, of course, is that the acquaintance still does not shop at Target because he still chooses to believe that they hate veterans, and now he no longer believes anything from because, he says, this proves they can't be trusted.
This kind of situation seems to pop up an awful lot when it comes to political issues. It's fairly common knowledge that the number of people who haven't already made up their minds are comparatively few. We all know (if we're being honest with ourselves) that no matter what happens in, say, the next Presidential debate, the folks who already liked McCain will say McCain won and the folks who already liked Obama will say Obama won. As fascinated as I am with the fact checking sites and analysis that invariably follow, it really doesn't make much difference. And I'm certainly not immune to this problem. I have my biases just like anyone else, and am influenced by them. This is just a fact of human nature.

But when people start believing horrible things about a candidate--things that can be readily proven as just not true, I find myself in a bit of despair. To paraphrase Slacktivist's contention in the post linked above, "fact checking is necessary, but it isn't sufficient." How do we deal with such people? Check out some of the videos he links to. There are some downright dangerous things going on here. Here are people who continue to believe things that aren't just matters of disagreement, but things that are out-and-out lies! (Note: I'm not saying that all such people are "liars," but I am saying that such people have been deceived by someone who is an out-and-out liar.) People like these, left unchecked, could do something truly destructive in their anger. How do we deal with them? If fact checking isn't sufficient, what else should we be doing?

Slacktivist articulates the problem pretty well, but doesn't seem to have much of a solution, either. I desperately would like to find one. I have a strong impulse to try to reason with those who argue against me, especially when I know have the facts to back up my assertions. I hold up examples like this one (not mine) as stellar efforts in that regard. But I find Slacktivist's experience echoes my own more often than not. People simply refuse to be persuaded, even when the facts are entirely against them. Failure to stop this kind of bull-headedness could have tragic consequences. Not because the "wrong" candidate might win or lose an election, but because people tend to act on their beliefs, and these kinds of lies almost seem to encourage violent kinds of behavior that no rational person (either conservative or liberal) wants to see happen.

So, how do we get people to stop insisting on believing things that are provably wrong?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Darth Vader/Death Star

I've mentioned before that Hasbro decided a few years ago to release Transformers based on Star Wars vehicles and characters. The Star Wars universe has many readily identifiable spaceships, but perhaps none is more quickly recognized than the Death Star. In fact, Mimas, a moon circling the planet Saturn, so closely resembles the characteristic appearance of this legendary fictitious battle station that it is more often referred to (at least in non-scientific circles) as the "Death Star moon" than it is by its real name. (Note: the first close-up photographs of Mimas weren't taken until 1980, three years after the release of Star Wars to theaters, proving that the Death Star was not created with this resemblance in mind. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction!)

Generally speaking, Star Wars Transformers vehicles transform into a robot resembling the character most strongly associated with the vehicle. I have to assume that Hasbro didn't think enough kids cared about Grand Moff Tarkin (which didn't even see a regular action figure release in the original toy line of the '70s and '80s) to use him, since Darth Vader is used instead. Of course, being the largest toy made for this line, this should be no surprise. Hasbro would want to use the most important character they could, and Darth Vader arguably is the most important character in the whole Star Wars saga. Vader is definitely something of a "shellformer." That is to say, the robot is almost entirely concealed within panels that surround it in vehicle mode, these panels forming a "shell" that is pretty much the entirety of the vehicle itself. That said, at least this "planet-sized" Transformer is actually round!

The Death Star/Darth Vader toy comes with Darth Vader's signature weapon, a lightsaber, which is made of transparent plastic so that when you put it in Vader's hand and press a button will be illuminated by a light from inside the hand. This light is accompanied by the unmistakable lightsaber sound effect. Less characteristic of Vader is the blaster he holds in his other hand, but since this weapon is essential to the presence of the planet-destroying superlaser (really a missile on the toy) in Death Star mode, this incongruity can perhaps be forgiven. The toy also has other light and sound effects, including several clips of Darth Vader's voice and the "breathing" sound he is known for.

It was standard for Star Wars Transformers released prior to this year to include tiny "pilot" figures representing the actual humans of the franchise (in fact, this practice has really only been dropped within the past few months). In the case of the Death Star, the set comes with three Stormtrooper figures and one Darth Vader figure. These figures fit nicely in compartments at the large robot's shoulders and shins, but are almost certainly too large to be properly in scale with a station the movies clearly tell us is the size of a "small moon."

The Death Star/Darth Vader set also comes with three TIE Fighters that can either be assembled or taken apart and stored within another compartment in the back of the Death Star. Unfortunately, these tiny ships were designed with hexagonal pegs that don't quite line up like they're supposed to, making it impossible to assemble the TIE Fighters in their proper "tall" configuration. Plus, these ships are definitely too small to be in scale with the human figures mentioned above. Ahh, well, since when did scale mean anything in Transformers?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

So, What Do Club Members Really Want?

Credit where it's due. The poll you see on the right (you may have to scroll down just a little) is pretty much entirely the work of Transformers Club forum moderator Victorysabre. The only things I've changed are 1) I've edited the main question to be more Transformers club member specific, and 2) this version of the poll allows for multiple choices. Don't feel like you have to choose one, and only one, answer. If you feel that several options reflect you desires equally well, go ahead and select any or all of them!

The poll will last for one week. If the results prove interesting, I may discuss them further when it's done.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Intelligence Is Not the Same As Elitism

One word that seems to be tossed around a lot during political debates and speeches right now is "elite." When it's used in that context, to be "elite" is almost never a good thing. The word seems to be used by one candidate against his/her opponent (and I've seen examples of this kind of thing on both sides), or by a candidate against the media (to be fair, I have to say I've only seen this kind of attack coming from one side, although I'm prepared to be proven wrong on that), almost invariably with the suggestion that the person or persons being referred to as "elite" aren't able to relate to the rest of us, or indeed may even be working against the rest of us. Although I haven't heard the suggestion spelled out, there seems to be this idea that "he/she/they think they're better than the rest of us," which of course is a sentiment that most of us would respond negatively against.

No one likes to think that someone thinks they're "better than us," although I wonder why we tend to have this reaction. For example, being honest with myself, I know that there are a lot of people who know more about how to run a business (something I have pretty much no experience at) than I do. But even so, I expect that if Donald Trump were to tell me that he knows how to run a business better than I do, I would probably be offended, notwithstanding the fact that he would almost certainly be right. Indeed, I would possibly have the same reaction against Mr. Trump if someone else told me that Donald Trump thought that he was a better businessman than I am, even though, again, he almost certainly is (and very likely would have such an opinion if he had the slightest idea who I was).

While reading through an Allspark thread on a comment made during last week's vice-presidential debates, the observation was made that many people are making decisions based on attacks of "elitism." That is to say, people support the candidate they see as not being "elitist." Also, more and more, it seems that people are confusing intelligence with being elitist. The problem is that, in so doing, we may well be supporting a candidate who is less capable of actually doing the work of being president (or vice-president, as the case may be), simply because we "don't like elitists."

Let me be clear. If I had to choose between two equally capable candidates (I will lay aside the issue of shared values for this discussion, but assume the candidates are comparable on these as well), I actually think it would be a good thing to vote against the one who was more "elitist." I do, in fact, want a certain humility in those who I choose to be my representatives in running the country. But I still advocate for the more intelligent or capable candidate, if a clearly more intelligent or capable candidate is present. I want a person who really does know more than I do about, say, getting a bill passed into law in the Senate. Moreover, such a person is not "elitist" simply because he/she chooses to try to explain some of the nuances and intricacies of the process, as opposed to a candidate who simply asserts that they "can" do it. Of course, some of these assertions can (and should!) be backed up by their records, but assuming that records are either roughly similar, or too difficult to understand at face value (seriously, we've all seen how opposing candidates distort records in these campaigns), I want a candidate who can explain in appropriate detail how he/she plans to meet his/her goals.

There are certainly legitimate differences of opinion to be had in this political season. But I think cries of "elitism" amount to little more than name-calling designed to trigger an automatic (i.e., non-thinking) response on the part of voters. Frankly, this is the very last thing we need.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Legacy of Dr. David Scholer

The following is an expanded version of an article written for this week's SEMI (Fuller's weekly student newsletter), which has devoted the issue to remembering Dr. David Scholer.
When I joined my then-girlfriend Michelle in enrolling in David Scholer's course, "Women, the Bible, and the Church," I didn't realize that it would end up changing my life.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that I had never given the matter of whether or not women were allowed to be pastors and ministers a second thought until I was in college. To at least some extent, this is undoubtedly because, as a male, I have had the luxury of never having had my own potential ability to become a church leader challenged. But it’s also due to the fact that, having grown up in the PC(USA), I was accustomed to seeing women in such positions from time to time, if admittedly nothing like as often as I’d seen men in those positions.

But when I went to college, I went to a small Christian school in the mountains of North Carolina, and I soon learned that this was an issue of major controversy among some of the students and professors there. Apparently there’s this passage in I Timothy that explicitly prohibits women from such positions of church leadership. Having identified a call to church ministry by this time, I was committed to learning more about the Bible and taking its teachings seriously. This new revelation was a bit disturbing, and I knew that I would have to work at understanding how churches such as the one I’d grown up in could justify what appeared to be gross violations of such teachings, but knew that there must be more to the passage than what appeared at first glance. After all, “she must be silent”? Even at my college, no one really seemed to be arguing for that. Most were talking instead about church leadership.... And how did these admittedly more conservative believers reconcile Paul’s teaching that he didn’t “permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” with the fact that some of our professors at college were, themselves, women?

Of course, I’m fully aware now that those who argue that God does not permit women to positions of church leadership have answers to questions like these. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I'd become a bit skeptical of more “liberal” denominations such as the PC(USA) while in college, and even when I first came to Fuller to work on my MDiv. But I never was fully convinced by those answers. Something just didn’t seem right about it all.

Several years into my studies, I met Michelle Baker, and we began to date. If anything, it seemed that the church that she attended in high school was even more conservative in regard to their teachings on women in ministry than my college was. But whereas I, being male, had the luxury of taking my time to explore the ramifications of these teachings, Michelle was attacked at her very core. Indeed, to this day she often says that this church “made her into the feminist she is today.” And while I had found myself under the influence of teachers more conservative than those I’d grown up under, Michelle was now in an environment with teachers more progressive than her former leaders, and was desperate to be told that it was okay to be who she was, with the gifts and talents that she believed God had given her.

It was almost a year into our relationship when Michelle enrolled in “Women, the Bible, and the Church.” I was nearly done with my own degree, but being a full-time employee of Fuller, I took advantage of the free audits granted to employees in order to attend the course with her. While in college, I heard quite a bit about why women shouldn't be ordained, but I was anxious to hear how a scholar who believed that women could serve in all forms of church ministry dealt with the biblical texts. Would he just “throw out texts he disagreed with,” as many conservatives seemed to accuse such scholars of doing, or would he be able to explain how certain texts perhaps might not mean what they seemed to at first glance?

This isn’t the place to get into the teachings themselves, but suffice it to say, I came out of the course satisfied that Dr. Scholer did take the teachings of the Bible seriously, and that God was perfectly fine with women serving in leadership positions within the church. I also came out of the course having impressed Michelle, having taken her concerns on this issue seriously.

We happened to be taking the course during the time that David first found out that he had prostate cancer, and the announcement of his condition to the class near the end of the quarter was one of the first times he had "gone public" about it. Immediately after the quarter ended, David went on medical leave to begin a round of chemotherapy designed to eradicate the cancer. Several months later, he returned to his office duties on campus, weakened from the ordeal, but with every reason to believe that the problem had been taken care of. In the meantime, Michelle and I had gotten engaged, and with the assurance that David was feeling better, we asked him to officiate at the wedding, an offer he was happy to accept.

Shortly after we got married, we found out that the doctors had discovered that small amounts of David's cancer remained, and that it was considered "incurable." If the timing had been just a bit different, we probably wouldn't have imposed on David by asking him to officiate a wedding while fighting cancer. I think he would have considered that a loss as much as we would have, and we thank God that the timing worked out like it did.

It is a statement of the obvious to say that David left a legacy felt by many people. Michelle, who served as a TA for David on three separate occasions, and is currently in the process to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, joins the legions of women who have been given encouragement and strength to follow their calling into ordained ministry. But on a more personal level, David and his wife Jeannette have left a legacy of friendship. In the six years that David lived following his initial diagnosis, Michelle and I were able to enjoy "hymn-sings" in their home, got to hear many stories of David's experiences in ministry and in academia, and enjoyed talking about other shared interests, such as a mutual love of books. There were hard times, too, such as time spent with David in the hospital during the recovery from his most recent surgery just over a year ago, a time David himself described as "going through Hell." But when David told us during one such visit that he was not embarrassed for us to see him even at these lowest of times, we knew that we really were accepted as an informal part of the Scholers' extremely large "family" of friends. Even in the midst of such suffering, David gave us an amazing gift. We will always be thankful for that.
Baker-Wright wedding photo with David and Jeannette Scholer

Friday, October 03, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Stepper/Ricochet (reissue)

Although it is generally the case that the American and Japanese Transformers lines are roughly similar to each other, every now and again either we come out with a toy that they don't get, or they come out with a toy that we don't get. Following the human compulsion to want those things that we can't have, those of us on the "wrong" side of that equation will occasionally bend over backwards to get the toy available only to kids on the other side of the world.

In 1987, Takara released a couple of Targetmaster figures that weren't made available in the United States. One of these was called "Stepper." Stepper was a redeco of Jazz, with a little bit of retooling to accommodate a Targetmaster weapon. Stepper was considered so rare that prices for the figure on eBay would regularly go up well above $100 whenever a specimen showed up, which as late as the early 2000's wasn't very often.

Ricochet Robot ModeAll that changed when the toy was rereleased in 2003 (some sources say 2004, but I do think 2003 is right). Not only did the new version ensure that the toy could once again be found comparatively easily via import outlets, but Hasbro also released a version in the United States. The Hasbro version was called "Ricochet," perhaps because Hasbro agreed with the ever-increasing number of fans who thought that "Stepper" was a pretty stupid name. My specimen is the Japanese reissue, which differs in a couple of significant ways from the 1987 original. Both differences are readily apparent in the picture to the right. At least, apparent to people that know about the original toy.

Ricochet Shoulder WeaponThe first major difference is that the Targetmaster weapon (originally named Nebulon, but called Nightstick in the American release) was given a slight remold. The original version wouldn't actually fit in the larger figure's hands (which were, being originally designed for Jazz, never intended to hold a Targetmaster-type figure in the first place). Instead, Stepper was given an attachment which could be attached to the figure's back, where you see the missile launcher above. This enabled the Targetmaster weapon to be used as a shoulder-mounted weapon. However, this attachment came at the expense of the missile launcher, which wasn't included with the original Stepper (and, thus, is the second major difference between the original and the reissue). Since the reissue includes both attachments, you can choose where to place the Targetmaster weapon for display.

Nightstick TargetmasterAs with all Targetmasters, Nebulon/Nightstick can change from a weapon to a robot. As with Stepper/Ricochet himself, the weapon was given a name change for the American release. Part of the reason this was necessary for the weapon figure can be a bit awkward to describe, but here goes.... In America, Targetmasters (and Headmasters and Powermasters, too) have their origins on a planet called Nebulos. This world is occasionally called Nebulon in some continuities, but the name Nebulon is more commonly associated with a native of the planet Nebulos. At least, that's the way it is in the American cartoon (the American comic called the natives "Nebulans"). In any event, the Japanese continuity didn't use Nebulos at all, and so there was really no reason (so it would seem) for them not to use the name for the Targetmaster figure itself.

Ricochet Vehicle ModeBut the confusion doesn't stop with the American renaming of this figure as "Nightstick" in 2003. Nightstick was the name of Targetmaster Cyclonus' weapon, of which the Stepper/Ricochet weapon component is an exact copy. (NOTE: The link above says that Cyclonus' Nightstick was recolored into Stepper's Nebulon. I'm just not seeing the difference, and don't think that the faction symbols seen in the photos there count.) My guess is that Hasbro probably won't do anything about this confusion when an all new Targetmaster Cyclonus is released next year.

To make matters even more confusing, Takara gave the name "Nightstick" to the other Targetmaster exclusive to Japan: Artfire, who still has never been reissued, probably because the reissue of Stepper/Ricochet didn't sell very well. All the hype that Stepper got when it was a "rare Japanese exclusive" died away when it became readily available (I still blame this at least in part on the high prices Toys R Us charged for Generaton One reissues. Why pay $30 or so for a toy when you could get better-engineered modern Transformers for a third of that price? By the time TRU started clearancing the figures to something reasonable, it was apparent that they were unpopular, having been on the shelves for so long, which further discouraged purchases). Artfire thus remains hard to find.

Jazz Repaints

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The 99 Cents Only Store... Isn't

Financial stuff is on the news all over the place these days. This is a far cry from the crisis on Wall Street, but it certainly shows the current pressures on the market in its own way. Several months ago, I noted that even the "99 Cents Only" store wasn't immune to inflation. It turns out that they had only just started....

I first realized something was up when I noticed a little addition to the price tags. You may have to click on the image to look a little closer, but that blue dot to the right of the large "99" has ".99" written in it. Yes, the price is now "99.99 cents."

The receipt is even more clear. Every price is now carried to four decimal places. For all intents and purposes, the price of most items is a full dollar. A person would have to buy fifty items (thanks to rounding) before they'd get that penny back compared to if the price really was a straight-forward dollar.

Of course, then they'd have to change their name, and that would cost money! Can't have that!


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