Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Reflections

As 2009 approaches, I feel that I should have some deep and profound thoughts. Certainly there was a lot that happened in 2008, both good and bad. And I doubt that I'm alone in looking at 2009 with an odd mixture of hope and fear. Indeed, I must confess that I feel the opportunity for change in the New Year more acutely this year than I can recall in any other year in recent times. Still, I have to say that I feel utterly inadequate to come up with words sufficient to convey these feelings.

There's much that I could talk about: the economic situation, the new presidency, the fact that BotCon will be in Pasadena this May; but I don't really feel up to it at the moment. Certainly, there's plenty of more qualified analysis of the first two subjects out there on other people's blogs, and I doubt that anyone's coming to my blog to read about that stuff in any event. As to BotCon, I actually do expect to do a listing of "things to do" in Pasadena for the benefit of those Transformers fans who aren't familiar with the places to eat, the hotels you could stay at (possibly for cheaper than the "official" hotels, that is), or the attractions in the area. But I need to take more time to get all that information organized, so I'll shoot for the 7th on that.

So, with that promise, I'm going to close out 2008. If 2008 has actually been good to you, I hope you see those blessings continue. If the year has been less than kind to you, as I expect it has for many, I hope that 2009 brings better things.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Women Changing the Course of History: Eliza Tibbets

I'd never heard of Eliza Tibbets before this morning. Now, I wonder how that could possibly have been the case.

To provide some context, my wife and I have been on a "mini-vacation" (less than 24 full hours) with her parents in Riverside, CA, staying at the famous Mission Inn, which is worth a blog entry in its own right. After a restful night's sleep, we took a tour of the Inn this morning, and it was during that tour that I learned about Mrs. Tibbets' story.

As the story was told to us, Mrs. Tibbets was in possession of two small navel orange trees. Although her husband didn't think much of the project, and forbade his wife from wasting water on the frivolous endeavor, Mrs. Tibbets faithfully watered the trees with used dishwater, and eventually the trees grew and flourished, and became the parents of all navel oranges produced in America to this day.

Naturally, such a story caught my attention, and so I decided to do a bit of research to see how much of that was true (this is my most reputable source, although I've checked several others. Note that the link leads directly to a PDF file). I've been able to verify a surprising amount. The trees apparently did come to Riverside at Eliza's initiation, through a friend, one William Saunders, who the Tibbetses knew in Washington, DC, where they lived before emigrating to Southern California. Saunders was in possession of the young navel orange trees through a connection in Brazil, from which it appears that this variety originates. Unfortunately for Saunders, his attempts to grow the trees were unsuccessful. Eliza asked to be given a chance to see if she could do better.

Apparently, there may have been as many as three young trees sent to California, but one was either trampled or eaten by cattle, and thus didn't survive. As to the two that remained, apparently they were indeed sustained via dishwater, as the Tibbetses were apparently not connected to any canal water at the time. This would certainly support the idea that water was scarce, although I haven't found explicit verification for the idea that Luther Tibbets actually forbade his wife from using fresher water on the plants, nor that he actively disapproved of the project. On the other hand, it does appear that his involvement in cultivating the trees was minimal, and he is even called "a poor businessman" in the article linked above. This may be especially noteworthy since the successful cultivation of navel oranges was apparently responsible for revolutionizing the California citrus industry, which was indeed one of the main sources of California wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The navel orange has, in fact, been called "the most important plant introduction ever made into the United States."

One of Eliza Tibbets' navel orange trees died in 1921, but the other continues to survive to this day (now over 130 years old!), and is indeed considered to be the parent of potentially all existing navel oranges anywhere (the original stock in Brazil has since died off, although an offshoot of one of Tibbets' trees was given to Brazil in 1955 as a gift). (Many of these strong, but unlinked, statements can be verified through the PDF file linked above.)

Besides her involvement in introducing navel oranges to the commercial world, Eliza Tibbets was apparently also a political campaigner (with her husband) for various social issues, including and especially women's suffrage. Sadly, she died roughly 20 years before women were actually granted the right to vote across the United States.

I'm often impressed with how small things can sometimes prove to make such a big difference. Here, the use of some leftover water, dirty from washing dishes, was responsible for a huge portion of California commerce as a young state, and thus for much of what we take for granted on the West Coast today. Thanks, Mrs. Tibbets!

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Cryotek

CryotekI enjoy using the Transformers Wiki as a resource, and contribute to it from time to time. One of the tasks that falls to those who work on such projects is how to categorize certain characters. More often than not, this is a fairly simple situation. If it says "Armada" on the package, then you group it with the "Armada" characters, and there usually isn't something from another line that would actively contradict that classification.

But, every once in a while, it gets difficult. Cryotek, for example, is classified on the Wiki with the Robots in Disguise line, because Cryotek's only toy (so far?) was labeled as being a part of that line. But although Cryotek has appeared in a handful of official stories, none of them are Robots in Disguise stories. Indeed, all of them are compatible with the Beast Wars era, especially as seen in 3H's Universe comics. So, if the classification of Cryotek was on the basis of his character, he'd be grouped with the Beast Era.

Although Cryotek's toy was a Target exclusive, pretty much all of the character's official fiction has been through the various incarnations of the Transformers convention and/or club over the years. This makes it appealing to think of Cryotek as a club (or convention) exclusive, even though this isn't actually true. As with pretty much all exclusives, Cryotek is a repaint of a previously existing toy: in this case, Transmetal 2 Megatron. In fact, Cryotek's official bio suggests that he copied Megatron's powerful Transmetal 2 body to create this form.

The original "Transmetals" were Beast Wars toys with chromed parts in beast mode. The idea was that whereas the original Beast Wars characters were robots with actual fleshy beast modes with skin and muscles and such, Transmetals were "inside-out," with robot modes showing such organic animal characteristics and beast modes that appeared entirely mechanical. Transmetals 2, in turn, retained chromed parts, but did more of a mix-and-match of what organic characteristics showed up where. Most Transmetals 2 are rather monstrous in appearance. This mold is, by contrast, rather elegant. Still, the original Megatron version of this mold was marketed as a Transmetal 2, so Cryotek is generally considered a Transmetal 2, as well.

Although a bright blue dragon may not be the most "realistic" alternative mode, it is nonetheless very striking. There is a lever on back on the toy that allows you to open and close the dragon's wings for flight, and a missile fits inside the dragon's jaws that can be fired when it opens its mouth. Add in the head-mounted missile launcher in Cryotek's robot mode, and the toy evokes a very powerful character. This is especially appropriate given Cryotek's rather unique bio, which characterizes him as a Cybertronian "criminal overlord." Even if, like any good mob boss, Cryotek prefers to let underlings do his dirty work, he has to be able to enforce his will through sheer force when necessary.

Cryotek DragsterThis toy has another alternative mode which appears as more of an afterthought than a real mode. It's officially called a "transportation mode," but it's often referred to by fans as a "dragster," no doubt taking advantage of the pun. Although most Transmetals 2 toys weren't designed with "third" modes like this, they were common in the original Transmetals toys, and I wonder if some of that reasoning carried over when the TM2 Megatron mold was being created. Or, it might be nothing more than that Hasbro thought such a large toy should have an extra bit of play value tossed in. Who am I to argue?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in a Time of Uncertainty

It's no secret that the country--the world, even--is going through a time of great economic uncertainty. It's hard to go through a day, it seems, without hearing some news about another group of people being laid off from their jobs in the wake of either bankruptcy or a desperate move to avoid bankruptcy. Some of this uncertainty hits home for me, too, given that educational institutions have also been hard-hit by the money crunch, and will have to make drastic changes in the near future. Fuller is no exception. They've already announced that, when the new library opens in January, it will be open for significantly fewer hours than we've been used to, in an attempt to keep down costs. I'm sure that more changes are on the way.

I sometimes wonder about what the world was like during the time Jesus was born into it. We know that Israel was under Roman occupation. Indeed, the circumstances and location of Jesus' birth came to pass in part due to a Roman decree. This must have contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty to those who lived in the region, especially as they were displaced to take part in the census. We also know (in part due to the nature of the offering presented after Jesus' birth) that Mary and Joseph were poor, so we can add economic uncertainty to the list. I confess that I don't know how widespread people of Mary and Joseph's status were during that time, and thus want to be careful about trying to draw the analogy between the time of Jesus' birth and our time too closely, but for Mary and Joseph themselves, it's certainly safe to say that they were living in circumstances that we would be hard-pressed to argue as better than our own.

Of course, we also know that Mary and Joseph were given a renewed hope. First and foremost in the person of their newborn son, of course, but also in the visitors who came to see the baby. We specifically know that the Magi, when they came to visit Mary and Joseph some time after the actual birth, gave gifts. The Bible doesn't tell us what Mary and Joseph did with the gifts, which were quite valuable. Did they sell them to pay for some of their travel expenses? Did they use the perfumes and gold on special family occasions? Did they keep them so that Jesus could use them when he grew up? Even if Mary and Joseph didn't use the Magi's gifts for themselves, just having been given such precious items must have given them real, tangible financial security that it seems they did not have previously.

I have been blessed this Christmas season to see such tangible signs of hope, as well. A family member who had been searching for a new job after having been laid off months ago has finally found one. Another family member has finally moved into a new house after months and months of building and repair work (work that isn't finished, but at least it's finally livable). I myself have been blessed by tangible gifts small and large from many of my coworkers. Although I've worked at Fuller for eight years, there was something about this year that was unprecedented, and I struggle to find words to explain, other than to say that I've been touched by everyone's thoughtfulness and generosity.

So, this Christmas season, as we remember the birth of the one who is the source of all of our hope, I want to say not only "Merry Christmas," but "Thank you." I don't know what the future holds for any of us, and know that this season is definitely more uncertain for many of us than it has been in quite some time. I pray that this season is a time for celebration and hope in the midst of that uncertainty.

BotCon 2009 to be in Pasadena, CA

Just found out less than half an hour ago. Although the exact venue hasn't been announced, I'm guessing it's the same venue as BotCon 2004 was at, which is literally walking distance from Fuller.

The dates will be May 28-31.

I guess I'll be going this year! Woo, hoo!

EDIT: Sometime after New Year's, I'll try to compile a list of "things to do" in and around the Pasadena area (especially close to the convention center). If you have particular questions/needs/suggestions, feel free to leave a comment, and I'll try to make sure to address them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reflectionary: Scripture for Worship on Christmas Eve

This podcast file is actually a couple of years old now, and so the web page mentioned at the end (specific to The Reflectionary) is no longer valid. Since taking down that original Reflectionary page, I've had little reason to repost any of these old entries, but the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Christmas Eve are the same every year, and since I no longer have a live link to this file on my blog, it seems appropriate to post it here. The podcast contains comments and questions on the following passages:
  • Isaiah 9:2-7
  • Titus 2:11-14
  • Luke 2:1-20 (some churches will stop at verse 14, but verses 15-20, being optional in the RCL, are included here)
The whole podcast is only about 10 minutes long, so you should be able to find a place to fit it into your schedule without too much trouble. Music lovers may appreciate the clips from Handel's Messiah incorporated into the podcast, which are performed by the MIT Concert Choir (I don't know what year). These clips are made available through and are available for use via a "Creative Commons" license similar to that used by this blog, itself.

Enjoy! As a reminder, I post weekly lectionary ruminations (text only) on Saturdays, over at the Presbyterian Bloggers site.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Silverstreak: A Christmas Parody

It's Christmas parody time again! This year's entry involves a matter that Transfans are increasingly concerned about: the loss of beloved names due to trademark reasons.
(to the tune of "Silver Bells")

Silverstreak! Silverstreak!
He’s lost his name, what a pity!
Marketing... Silly thing
Bluestreak could no longer stay....

Market trademarks, silly trademarks
Losing them all the while
So the name wasn’t open to Hasbro
Try a new one, something someone
might find in the toy aisle
and remember the name we held dear

Silverstreak! Silverstreak!
He’s lost his name, what a pity!
Marketing... silly thing...
His former name’s gone away!
Previous Christmas parodies may be found below:
Traditionally, the Christmas parody post has been my last for the year, as I have taken a vacation from blogging (often accompanied by a real vacation) between Christmas and New Year's. I intend to keep posting this year, at least as much as the usual Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, if not more (I already have something planned for tomorrow, in fact!). So please keep checking in!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Energon Downshift

'Tis the Friday before Christmas, so what should I do
To whip up a fitting Transformer review?

OK, enough with the rhyming. Seriously, coming up with an appropriate Transformer to do for the "Christmas" entry was hard. Like most Transformers fans, I've gotten more than a few Transformers as Christmas gifts. How would I choose one over another? And despite a few UK Transformers comics that had Christmas themes, I couldn't really think of any toys that were inherently more "Christmasy" than others. Ultimately, I chose Energon Downshift primarily because he has predominately red and green highlights to his color scheme.

Having not featured too many toys from the Energon line, I should mention some of the features that made this line unique. If you look closely at Downshift's rear hubcap, you'll see a purple Energon star. This didn't come with Downshift. Energon stars came only with the small "Basic" figures in the line (that is, the roughly $7 price-point), but could be used on pretty much all other Energon figures. The idea was that these were supposed to supply the characters with a power-up (Incidentally, that particular Energon star didn't actually come with an "Energon" figure, per se. It came with BotCon Laserbeak, which I used in this comic way back when, and which I sold shortly afterward. But I actually got two purple Energon stars with Laserbeak for some reason, so I kept one...).

Long-time fans immediately notice upon looking at Downshift (and that color scheme) that it looks a lot like Generation One Wheeljack. When one looks at Downshift's head, this homage is clearly shown to be intentional. Oddly enough, this doesn't appear to be a case where Hasbro didn't have the rights to use the name "Wheeljack," as there had been a "Wheeljack" in the Armada line just the previous year, and a clearly G1-inspired Spychanger Wheeljack was released the same year as Downshift. The rumor is that Hasbro felt that the name "Wheeljack" sounded "evil," and so they used it on the Autobot-turned-Decepticon in the Armada line. Since Energon was supposed to be a sequel to Armada, they presumably thought they should consider this toy to represent a different character (although Armada Wheeljack did seem to have come back to the Autobot side at the end of Armada). Unfortunately, they chose a name that had already been established to belong to yet another character in Armada. Confusion abounds!

In addition to those Energon stars, nearly all figures in the Energon line came with weapons made out of clear plastic (intended to imply that they were created out of pure Energon). Often these weapons could "combine" into some "super" weapon. In the case of Downshift, this was accomplished through the assistance of a connector piece: the spoiler from Downshift's vehicle mode.

But, first and foremost, the Energon line was characterized by the fact that most of the Deluxe or "Mega"-sized Autobots could combine with just about any other Autobot within its size class to make a larger robot, with one toy becoming the top half and the other toy being the lower half. This is actually a fairly old idea, having first been used with the Japanese-exclusive Landcross way back in 1989. I've already shown how Downshift could form the lower part of one of these combined robots when I reviewed the club exclusive Nightbeat a few weeks back. I could just as easily have shown those same two toys in the opposite arrangement here, but decided to show how Downshift can form the top of one of these combinations by showing how he combines with Energon Tow-Line who, although that toy is unlike any other Energon Deluxe figure, is in fact the toy Downshift's instructions show him combining with. This monstrosity was hard to get a good picture of, so here's a shot of the same configuration from another angle.

Part of the reason I don't have all that many Energon toys, despite their relatively recent availability, is that I really just don't care for that many of the toys. A lot of fans seem to feel the same. It is argued that running the combination gimmick through practically the entire line made each of the individual robot designs suffer as a result. I'd say that this was a brave experiment that perhaps didn't work out as well as hoped. Combiners are actually a fun gimmick. They just shouldn't dominate the line quite so much.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fundamentalist Zeal and Feelings of Being Threatened

Scot McKnight reflects on how overly strident attacks that come from liberal Christians can be just as vitriolic as those typically associated with right-wing fundamentalist believers, and wonders why so many people seem to get so violently upset so easily.

McKnight suggests that excessive zeal and absolute confidence in one's position is at the heart of this phenomenon. There is indeed something to be said for this. I've argued for the need for greater humility a few times on this blog. Some of the comments on the thread offer other insights. I'm particularly intrigued by one that argues that fundamentalism is more about the person's attitude--not just zeal but the lack of an attitude of love toward one's opponent--than it is about the nature of the beliefs themselves. And I've certainly seen such "closed-minded liberalism" (as I called it then, although I would agree that "fundamentalist liberalism" would have worked just as well) in my own past. Some have noted that some of those who have left a particular tradition reserve their strongest attacks for those who remain in the tradition left behind.

My own response is perhaps a bit more primal. I think that people fight the most violently when they feel threatened by something. This has certainly been demonstrated in fairly concrete ways by the reaction to the September 11th, 2001 attacks on our country, but I think it holds true in these ideological battles, as well. We've seen the fundamentalist diatribes against what they perceive as the "War on Christmas," complaints about "activist judges," and defenses of the "traditional definition of marriage" from one side, and corresponding fights (often on those same issues) from the opposite side. Of particular interest to me was that McKnight's reflections were apparently triggered by an incident where the grandson of "the architect of the social gospel" (McKnight's words) responded to an interview where Rick Warren criticized the social gospel. McKnight felt that the response was unfair and "needlessly trashed" Warren. I have yet to read all of the comments (McKnight doesn't link to them, and the Steven Waldman post I found seems to be an after-the-fact assessment), but taking McKnight at his word, I can certainly see this feeling of "being under attack," i.e., threatened, when one sees one's own grandfather mischaracterized (so the grandson seems to see it).

Anyway, I don't know how this insight might be used to quell such attacks (from the left or the right) in the future. Indeed, despite my own desire to advocate for humility in one's argumentation, I see the tendency to "fight back when threatened" in myself, and wish that I were more successful at keeping those tendencies at bay. Perhaps the best that can be asked for is that each of us become more self-aware of when we are likely to respond badly to a situation, and learn how to stop that reaction rather than give in to it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The (Economic) Value of Relationship

Here at Fuller, one of the buzzwords that comes up from time to time is "relationship." Generally speaking, we don't mean "dating" when we use this word, but rather the fact that people being in community with each other is a high value here. Naturally, this arises out of our religious values, but this also helps us to see positive implications for strong relational community in secular areas of life, as well, such as in economics. For example, I've heard fellow students argue for years about the need to buy more local produce in order to help local farmers, many of whom they know personally. In turn, they argue, money is kept in the community, creating local growth. Also, because it costs less to ship the produce that shorter distance, the money is spent more efficiently. Likewise, students often argue for the value of living close to one's workplace, providing for closer ties to the people and businesses nearby. Also, this enables a shorter commute—possibly even walking or riding one's bicycle—and therefore using less gas.

I've been intrigued over the past few weeks to hear some secular pundits argue for the value of relationship—actual interaction with people—in the economic arena. This recent NPR news story tells of a mortgage broker in Pennsylvania who deals with the Amish when they need loans to buy land for farming. The Amish tend not to have much debt: they don't use credit cards, and usually deal exclusively in cash. But they still need loans to buy land the same as most of us do, and they will use the local (non-Amish) banks for this purpose. Because they have no credit history in the conventional sense, Bill O'Brien (the broker featured in the article) will ask the potential borrower about his family. Who was his father? Who is his father-in-law? O'Brien is proud to say that in roughly 20 years of lending, he has never had a problem with an Amish borrower failing to pay off his debt. Part of the reason for this is, of course, rooted in Amish values, but it's also an indicator of the relationships O'Brien builds with his borrowers. Apparently, he puts about 1000 miles on his car every week visiting borrowers, and he knows each one by name.

Contrast this with the Fresh Air interview with bankruptcy and commercial law expert Elizabeth Warren, who also argues for face-to-face interaction between lenders and borrowers, noting that "in the old days... if something went wrong... the institution that made the loan stood to lose it all, and they would sit down and negotiate. Because it was one person. One company." The reality these days, she explains, is that banks package, divide up, and re-package bundles of loans into financial instruments, and so now no single institution has an incentive to negotiate. In fact, there is a disincentive to negotiate, because so many entities have an interest in the loan, and negotiation may not favor all of them equally. By getting away from the concept of "relationship" (a word Warren doesn't use, to the best of my knowledge) in economics, we have created some of the very problems we're now facing.

Of course, these banking behaviors came to exist for a reason. There are certain efficiencies in these practices that were (at one time, at least) desirable, and face-to-face interaction can sometimes be slow and inefficient. I don't know that it's practical to suggest that we need to do a full-scale return to "the way things used to be." However, it's clear that some of the "old" values that may have been lost were important, after all, and some reclamation of those values will need to happen. How that will take place, and how those values will be reintegrated into the technology and procedures of today, remains to be seen. But it's a discussion we need to have.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Camshaft

When I was visiting family for Thanksgiving a couple of weeks back, my parents brought me a few Transformers and parts that my brother thought I should have. This is how I was able to show Mirage with his rifle last week, but it also enables me to feature a more obscure character from the earliest part of Transformers history.

Camshaft is a member of the "Omnibots," the group which also features Overdrive, and like Overdrive, Camshaft was a pre-Transformers-era "Diaclone" toy that was brought over to the Transformers line as one of the very first mail-order exclusives. Camshaft's vehicle mode is a Mazda Savannah RX-7. Ironically, the RX-7 (having a rotary engine) doesn't actually have a camshaft, perhaps demonstrating the dangers of naming so many characters after automotive terms. They were bound to get something wrong sooner or later!

But more seriously, as a member of the Omnibots, Camshaft also has as an "armored car mode," a feature which sets these small cars apart from most other Transformer toys of its era. The official transformation is pictured here, but because of the absurdly-visible fists, I tend to just flip the missile launcher up and call it "done," if I play with this mode at all.

Oddly enough, I've had Camshaft's hand weapon floating around my collection for quite some time, even though the toy itself was with my brother until a couple of weeks ago. I'm not sure how that happened, but all the bits we have are properly together again. That "bits we have" part is important. Having gotten Camshaft at a flea market way back when, I'm pretty sure we've never had missiles. Maybe someday I'll have to do something about that.

Being mail-order exclusives, the Omnibots were never given Tech Specs in America, but they were given Tech Specs in Japan (despite also being mail-order exclusives there). As I did with Overdrive, I was able to create a mock-up of what an American Camshaft Tech Spec would have looked like, using a translated version of the Japanese bio. Enjoy!Camshaft Tech Specs

Thursday, December 11, 2008

KB Toys is Going Out of Business

I just found out that KB Toys has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time this decade. This time, it looks like the end, and they've announced "going-out-of-business sales at [their] hundreds of stores."

In one sense, I'm not at all surprised. KB has routinely had much higher prices on their toys than what I could find at pretty much any other national chain (I'm thinking Toys R Us, in addition to places like Target and Wal-Mart), and when they have a 25% sale, it's even then not usually enough to get me to pick up an item, because that 25% often only brings the price back down to the same level it was at in those other chains (before the toy was known to be a shelfwarmer!).

But, even so, the news saddens me a bit. I used to work for a KB Toys in Anderson, SC about 12 years ago, during what was otherwise one of the most difficult times of my life. This was the period of time when the chain was changing their name from "Kay Bee" (which is how I knew it as a child) and we still had both names visible in various parts of the store. Although I had to drive about 45 minutes each way to get to my job, which paid a measly $5 an hour (if that, but I think that's right), I found that working in that small toy store, even though it was in the midst of the crazy holiday season, was one of the few highlights of my time living in South Carolina for those few months. Just out of college, I was already one of the oldest people there (with the exception of the managers), but I was able to relate fairly well to the other co-workers, and was even asked to stay on after the holiday season ended, which if I wasn't already planning to move back up to Kentucky, I probably would have done.

The job was a nice mix of social interaction and "time alone" for me (a decidedly strong introvert). When in the back room putting price tags on items, I remember seeing the G2 Dreadwing (already a couple of years old at the time) waiting for the right opportunity to be taken out to the floor again. This was also the time when Beast Wars toys were just coming out, and I enjoyed seeing new Transformers on the shelves again (although at this time I was still a little skeptical about this new direction). "Tickle Me Elmo" was the craze of the season, and we had to turn a lot of disappointed customers away asking if we had the toy, which we could never keep on shelves for long. But most of all, I think I enjoyed working the cash register, something I had never done during my tenures (yes, plural) working at Toys R Us in previous years. Often, when I had to give a customer just one penny of change, I'd tell them, "Don't spend it all in one place!" At least a few of them humored me by appearing to think I was funny!

Anyway, I find I'm actually sorry to see the chain go, although I definitely didn't do much (after working there) to keep them afloat. They simply couldn't compete with the lower prices other chains were able to offer. But I'll always remember them fondly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Blagojevich Scandal and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Illinois has, sadly, a well-known reputation for corruption in politics, but although I have family in Chicago, I've never really had occasion to think about how much of that reputation is well-earned and how much is just talk. Perhaps I was naïve to be surprised when I learned yesterday of the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges. I was even more surprised (naïveté again?) by learning (from the same article linked above) that the former governor of Illinois, the man defeated by Blagojevich himself, we jailed three years after leaving office on a corruption conviction himself.

Anyone who's followed politics since Richard Nixon has an idea for just how high the burden of proof is to convict a politician of corruption. Most of us believe on some level that it's going on, but very few politicians ever face serious charges, much less jail time (at least, proportionate to the number of politicians out there). When an actual arrest is made, it's a big deal, because everyone knows that if they're wrong, or the charges don't stick, the politician has the power to make life very uncomfortable for those who sought to convict him.

Given all the talk about Blagojevich's apparent efforts to sell President-elect Obama's open Senate seat, I found myself reflecting on the classic movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the midst of all this. I reviewed the movie after watching it for the first time just this past February. You can click the link for my thoughts then, but it occurred to me that there are some basic parallels between the set-up of that movie and what's happening with Blagojevich. A senate seat has opened up, so the governor has to make an appointment. The governor seeks to appoint someone that will further his own unsavory goals.

Of course, once the governor in Mr. Smith appoints Jefferson Smith, he pretty much fades out of the movie, which focuses instead on the real corrupt power broker, Jim Taylor, for whom the governor is a mere pawn. I don't see any evidence that Blagojevich is anyone's pawn. He's much more like Taylor in this analogy, except Blagojevich didn't have to attempt to go through any middle-man to get his desired senator into position.

But, just as Taylor's efforts were thwarted when Smith turned out to be a man of higher ideals and integrity than previously expected, Blagojevich will now almost certainly be unable to realize his political or monetary ambitions (pending the outcome of whatever trial awaits him). One can only hope that, whoever ends up becoming the junior senator of Illinois when all this dust settles, he or she will be able to rise above the culture of corruption as well as Jefferson Smith proved able to.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Things I've Done Meme

Found this on Julie Clawson's blog, which also linked to a version at CuppaJaveWithFriends. Basically, this is a list of 100 things. These 100 things should be the same on every blog using this meme. If you've actually done the thing listed, put it in bold. The parentheticals are personal notes, but I notice that both of the other blogs kept the parenthetical on the first one, and I think it's appropriate to keep that going here, too.

If you like the idea, and want to do it on your own blog, feel free. Please also feel free to leave a comment here so folks will know where to find your list!

1. Started your own blog (duh)
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band (just chorus)
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than you can afford to charity (Hmm, what does it mean to "afford" it? Given my income, I could argue that anything I give is more than I can afford. Still, I'm not sure I can mark this one in good conscience)
7. Been to Disneyland (my wife and I actually had annual passes back when we were engaged, and went often!)
8. Climbed a mountain (heh, I pretty much went to college on a mountain!)
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sang a solo (a solo?)
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched a lightning storm
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning (bad chicken quesadilla!)
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown your own vegetables (do herbs count?)
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
22. Hitch hiked
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill (I'm tempted to highlight this, as I've occasionally taken a sick day when I knew that I could function if I went to work, but I honestly feel that any sick days I've ever taken, it's because my health has not been what it's supposed to be, and that I would make myself worse if I tried to "push through")
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb (seen quite a few up close and personal, as recently as a few weeks ago, even. But I don't think I've ever held one)
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors (which ancestors? How long ago? I'm guessing seeing the place my Grandma grew up isn't enough)
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught yourself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied.
38. Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
39. Gone rock climbing (not the way I expect they mean it...)
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant (I've given strangers coupons, but that's not really the same thing)
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight (although not for any context one would normally assume from such a statement. This was for a youth group worship service.)
46. Been transported in an ambulance
47. Had your portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing (well, yeah, but I didn't fish much, and get pretty seasick...)
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class.
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies (But Samoas are absolutely wonderful!)
62. Gone whale watching (does seeing a whale while on a cruise count?)
63. Got flowers for no reason (am translating "got" as "so I could give to someone," not "received")
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check (it's been quite a while, thankfully)
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy (saved from what? I still have lots of them, though. Heck, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that!)
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades (Toured? I don't think so. I think I may have been at the edges some 25 years ago, though, when I lived in Florida)
75. Been fired from a job (just a private tutoring job, and that word was never used, but since it wasn't at my initiative, I think it counts)
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone.
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle (how fast does it have to be going to count as "speeding"?)
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car (I don't think I'll ever do this, when good quality used cars can be had so much more inexpensively!)
83. Walked in Jerusalem (my wife has! Just this past year!)
84. Had your picture in the newspaper (I don't recall... If I have, it was almost certainly when I was a child.)
85. Read the entire Bible (I actually may have done, but I certainly haven't done so front-to-back, and I don't keep a log of my reading most of the time, so I think I'll leave this one unchecked)
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating.
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life (I'm tempted to count the person who told me she accepted Christ through my children's sermons, but that just doesn't feel like it would be in the spirit of the intent, here)
90. Sat on a jury (not quite. Was up for the possibility only a month ago)
91. Met someone famous (I'm told I shook Buddy Ebsen's hand as an infant. I definitely met George Takei and John DeLancie on separate occasions, though. And, depending on how one defines "famous," a lot of the professors I work with regularly should qualify, especially this guy!)
92. Joined a book club (in fact, depending on how one defines this, you could argue I'm involved in one right now)
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person (didn't get to see the basement, though) ;)
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a mobile phone
99. Been stung by a bee (my brother has, though!)
100. Read an entire book in one day (several, although not recently. One does wonder if there should be a minimum threshold for answering this one, but I'm confident I've met any reasonable threshold)

I think I'm counting a mere 37 of 100 on this....

Monday, December 08, 2008

Obama Says Economy Will Get Worse - We Say, "We Know"

News articles this past week have been following President-elect Obama's statement that things in the economy will get worse before they get better, a statement which he repeated on Meet the Press yesterday. I expect that this news isn't a surprise to most of us. I know I've written about the state of the economy on this blog on many occasions over the past three years (Here are just a few examples). But the fact that Obama's willing to say so now is important. Leaving aside the cynicism that it would have been nice if he could have been so forthright during the election cycle itself, it's still the right thing to say if it does indeed reflect the reality.

Naturally, I think that this situation has gone on for long enough, and I'm more than ready for the economic nightmare to be over. I think that most of us feel the same. But since the situation has been building for so long now, it's unreasonable to assume that it will end quickly, and matters will only get worse if we don't prepare for the difficult times ahead.

I can imagine that some people are reading this and thinking "people are always short on money, this is nothing new." I don't know how many people are thinking that, but I'm sure that they're out there. But things are bad now in a way that they haven't been always. Maybe people my age are more able to recognize this. As Carol Howard Merritt notes in her book Tribal Church, "In 2000, the median net worth of someone over sixty-five was... fifteen times the net worth of households headed by those under thirty-five."1 And it's not just because those senior citizens have had more time to accumulate wealth, either. Those same people had incomes that were higher (in relation to the value of the dollar 30 years ago) than what current young adults are able to make, on average.2 And we haven't even gotten to talking (again) about how much more housing costs have risen, nor how education costs have gone up, leading naturally to greater debt before people even enter the work force! And with unemployment rising, it's even harder for people to find a job that increases their earning potential. If people are at all like me, we're glad to even have a job, even if it doesn't pay anything like what we feel we should be earning for our talents, abilities, and efforts.

There's no easy solution, but I am glad that Obama is talking about building infrastructure: roads, schools, and so on. I've seen others argue for infrastructure before, and the argument for more infrastructure makes sense to me. It may seem counter-intuitive to be spending more money when there's so much debt, and when the government is spending so much on so-called "bailouts" that have yet to help the average person more than the corporations responsible for so much of our trouble themselves--and I do repeat my assertion (agreeing with Reich in the link above) that we need a lot of this infrastructure to be done on the local level, and not just the federal one--but now is the time when we need this infrastructure spending the most! While it may well "get worse before it gets better," it won't "get better" for that much longer if we don't invest in this kind of growth sooner rather than later.

1Quote from p. 63 of Merritt's book. She cites Generation Debt by Anya Kamenetz, p. 158, as her source for this info, with the following specifics from Sam Roberts in Who We Are Now, p. 179: "the net worth for those younger than 35 was $7,240 and $108,885 for those over 65."
2Here is one of several interesting statistics from Mary Ellen Slayter, "It's Harder for Your Generation," appearing in The Washington Post on November 26, 2006 (This link will get you an abstract, but you'll have to pay for the full copy unless you're in an academic network that provides it by another means): "
Inflation-adjusted earnings for males age 25 to 34 with a high school diploma dropped from $42,630 in 1972 to $29,647 in 2002. Their college-educated peers saw their earnings slide from $52,087 to $48,955."

Friday, December 05, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Mirage

Mirage is one of those Generation One toys I picked up from some flea market or another well after the Generation One era had passed. I'm glad that I did, especially given that it remains one of few Generation One toys to have never been reissued by Hasbro or Takara (there are some decent quality replicas out there, but between the high price tag and the fact that they're of questionable-at-best legality, I don't recommend them).

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Exile of the Westminster Larger Catechism

I've mentioned before that I'm auditing a course on Presbyterian Creeds. A few weeks ago, we discussed the Westminster Standards (that is to say, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Westminster Larger Catechism). These were written by the Westminster Assembly in England around the period of 1641 (depending on how one counts the beginning of the effort) through 1647 in an attempt to reform the Church of England. That attempt actually failed, but the Standards nonetheless have had a profound impact on Presbyterianism. In fact, for quite some time, the Westminster Standards were the creeds of the Presbyterian church.

Non-Presbyterians may not be aware that the current PC(USA) is the result of a long history of both divisions and reunifications of Presbyterian churches over a long time frame (and, of course, there are other Presbyterian denominations even today). In 1958, two Presbyterian denominations became what was then called the UPCUSA. A short time after this unification occurred, the leaders of the UPCUSA authorized a new approach to what eventually became our current "Book of Confessions," adding the ecumenical creeds (The Apostles' Creed and The Nicene Creed) and several others. However, the Westminster Larger Catechism, which had been one of the defining creeds of Presbyterianism for over 300 years by that time, was consciously excluded at the time on several grounds.

One of these grounds was that of excessive "proof-texting." I hope to come back to this issue in another post, but for now it is worthwhile to note that, when the Westminster Standards were created, the Westminster Assembly included no Scripture references whatsoever! They had purposely avoided adding such references, perhaps out of fear of precisely such an accusation. It was an act of Parliament that said, in essence, "we don't see enough Scripture here! Go back and add Scripture references!" So the Westminster Assembly went back and added Scripture references to provide context for what was already being claimed as Christian doctrine in the Standards, including the Larger Catechism. They did this reluctantly, and it therefore seems a bit unfair to use the complaint of "proof-texting" here.

A perhaps more serious concern was that the Larger Catechism seemed "legalistic." On the surface of things, this perhaps makes sense. Take, for example, this passage regarding the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Steal":
Q. 141. What are the duties required in the Eighth Commandment?
A. The duties required in the Eighth Commandment are: truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to everyone his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections, concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose of those things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and a diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

Q. 142. What are the sins forbidden in the Eighth Commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the Eighth Commandment besides the neglect of duties required, are: theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price, unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness, inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming, and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate; and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.
That's quite a lot of text for such a short commandment! As to the charge of "legalism," I've often been told that one of the problems with the Pharisees of Jesus' time was how much the expanded upon the law, adding layers and layers of interpretation on top of it. On the surface of things, it would certainly seem that something similar has been done here.

But there's at least one major difference. If you'll look closely at the items listed here, you won't find much that actually deals with personal piety. There's nothing here to make a person feel unduly proud of one's self, as if to say "look at me. I don't only follow the commandment, but all the extra layers of it proscribed by the leaders of the church!" This seems to be the problem with the Pharisaic additions. The quotes from the Larger Catechism instead deal with protecting the rights and property of one's neighbor. Christians are to look out for the well-being of the other. Contrast this with Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Or perhaps this bit from Mark 7:9-13:
You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.' But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.
The Pharisees were good about adding layers to the law, but failed when it came to looking out for the well-being of the other.

Back to the Catechism, and whether or not it's "legalistic," one also notes elements like Question 172, whereby doubters may still be admitted to the Lord's Table (this from a tradition that takes the Biblical injunction to examine one's self before partaking of the sacrament quite seriously), and other places in the Catechism that seem quite grace-filled. If the Catechism is indeed a bit wordy, it's definitely in the spirit of helping Christians learn to live with each other. While I would certainly agree that to elevate the letter of the law over grace would be to misuse the law, and would therefore be "legalism," I'm just not seeing such a focus on "the letter, but not the spirit" of the law in the Larger Catechism.

So, honestly, I think that the move to "exile" the Larger Catechism from the canon of Presbyterian Confessions was a mistake. Thankfully, this "exile" did not last very long. When the UPCUSA and the PCUS (which retained the Catechism all along) united to form the current PC(USA) in 1983, the Catechism was reinstated, and most Presbyterians don't even know that it was ever missing.

Of course, most Presbyterians probably have no idea what's in the Book of Confessions to begin with, but that's a discussion for another time.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Blog Comment Day 2008

I try to keep up on trends in the blogosphere, partly looking for ways to promote my own blog, and partly because I'm genuinely interested in a lot of what's out there, and have made some interesting "cyber-friends" along the way. In that spirit, tomorrow's "Blog Comment Day" is right up my alley.

Here's the deal: participating bloggers agree to comment on at least five other people's blogs sometime tomorrow, December 3rd, 2008. At least two of these should be blogs where you have not commented previously (that will be the hard part for me!). It's not explicitly stated in the "rules," but I expect that it should be implicitly understood that such comments should meaningfully advance the conversations on those blogs, rather than some simple "Here's my first comment!" posts that may adhere to the letter of the law, but are certainly far from its spirit.

So, that's my goal for tomorrow, and I invite anyone who wants to join in to do the same. You can click on the image above for the main "Blog Comment Day 2008" site, leave a comment there to let folks know you'll be joining in. Then you can come back here for my regularly scheduled Wednesday post, and leave a comment there (if you so feel led) as one of your "five"!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Big Transformers Club News Today!

According to the latest issue of the Official Transformers Club magazine, the final part of the club combiner will be named Heatwave, and a picture will go up on the site TODAY (December 1st, 2008).

So, what are you still reading this page for? Head over the club site and see if they've put it up yet!

UPDATE: It's up as of about 5:00 pm.


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