Monday, June 30, 2008

Because Every Little Bit Helps

I talk a lot about some of the realities behind money being tight these days. It's time to do something about it. Here's a link to a pretty good site that collects online coupons and codes you can use in stores. In the case of online codes, it also rates them to indicate how many people have had success with the code, so you won't waste too much time trying codes that won't work for you.

Enjoy!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Recon Mini-Con Team

The Cybertron line is the third part of the so-called "Unicron Trilogy," but it has to be noted that it's not a very clean fit. When the Japanese counterpart to this line, called "Galaxy Force," was released, nothing within the fiction indicated a continuation with Energon or Armada at all. Yet Hasbro, for whatever reason, wanted to keep the continuity from those two lines going for just a while longer, so they made a few quickie changes and alterations to the "Galaxy Force" storyline during the stage where the cartoon was dubbed into English, and voilà! It's part of the trilogy! This is despite the fact that several characters seem not to remember key events from the previous storyline, not to mention a few other inconsistencies that we'll get to in a moment. Ahh, well. It's just for kids! Who's gonna notice?

Anyway, the previous key Mini-Con trio of High Wire, Sureshock and Grindor is nowhere to be found in Cybertron, nor is any mention made of their absence. In Cybertron, the main Mini-Con trio (apparently, Hasbro decided that "3 Mini-Cons = Basic retail price point") consists of Reverb, Jolt, and Six-Speed (as pictured from left to right). The designation of Jolt, the helicopter, is one of the first obvious indicators of Cybertron's inconsistency with the rest of the "Unicron Trilogy," as this Jolt is apparently not the same character as this guy, who's also a Mini-Con who turns into a helicopter. Usually, when a name is reused within a given continuity, it's because it's supposed to be a new form for the already-existing character, but this isn't the case here. This actually isn't the first time this kind of inconsistent name-reuse happens within a continuity, but Cybertron seems especially bad about it. It happens a lot (those last two are even within the Cybertron line. You don't even need to go back to another part of the same continuity!).

There's not too much more to say about these Mini-Cons themselves. Since they don't have to merge into a combined form, the designers didn't have to make the kinds of sacrifices often necessary to accommodate such additional transformations. And Jolt's and Six-Speed's robot forms are really quite decent. I find Reverb to be a bit of a disappointment, though. Although his transformation is easily the most innovative of the trio, those painted on arms (which are left exposed in vehicle mode) simply aren't all that convincing.

I've had enough of Mini-Cons for a while. Time to move on to something else....

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One True Way?

While perusing the blog of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington the other day, I found this entry about a survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust regarding statistics on religion in America. To judge from Witherington's blog entry title, one of his main concerns about the study's findings is that so many people who profess not only to be Christians, but "evangelicals," are not in agreement about Jesus being "the only way of salvation." I'm not sure I differ from Witherington in my theology on the matter, but that part wasn't really what caught my attention.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I tend to get a bit annoyed when people, especially Christians, get too confident in believing that they know God's will absolutely. I believe that people should exercise humility, recognizing that we are finite human beings, and prone to errors in judgment. While I do not believe that all interpretations are equal (in fact, I find the accusation of such more than a little offensive), I do believe that interpretations are not the same as actual truth, and that the difference must be acknowledged more than it usually is.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the part of the study that bothered me the most was the following (copied from Witherington's account of the survey).
...more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions.
That word, "true," is the key for me. I do not believe that there is more than one "true" way to interpret the teachings of Christianity. I do believe that there is more than one "valid" way to interpret such teachings.

Perhaps it's hard to see the difference between the two terms, so I'll attempt an explanation. I believe that there can be only one "truth" (Watch someone try to come in and say things like, yes, two plus two is four and my place of residence is in Monrovia, CA. Already, before getting any deeper, I've acknowledged more than one true thing that can exist simultaneously. Have a gold star. That's not what I'm talking about by "truth."). Either God (granting that God exists) has a plan for my life or God doesn't. Either God intends for women to be able to serve in ministerial roles, or such roles are intended by God to be limited to men alone. I could go on. These are teachings that different Christian traditions have different teachings on, and I generally argue for greater tolerance among Christians when dealing with those of us who believe differently. However, I don't believe that it's possible for both interpretations to be "true." I do believe that both are "valid" interpretations of the revelation we have been given (please note that I'm not suggesting that they're necessarily "equally valid"). But those of us who have made the interpretation in one direction are wrong, while those of us who have made another may be right (indeed, it's possible--even probable--that we're all wrong, excepting for these logical either/or dualisms!).

The big issue I have with those who proclaim too much confidence in knowing the truth is that it states too strongly that other believers with just as much access to God and to God's teachings are still nonetheless proclaiming "untruths." I simply don't believe that we have sufficient knowledge to know who's right and who isn't with that degree of confidence. Who are you, a mere fellow human, to tell me that I'm not hearing God, and am not interpreting God's word faithfully?

But to say that there is more than one "true" interpretation? I just can't go there. Some interpretations are right while others are wrong. We just don't always know which are which.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Finding Solutions to Higher Gas Prices

I don't regularly check in with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich's blog as part of my regular readings, but peruse it once in a while when reminded that it exists. It was during one of these recent "perusals" that I stumbled upon this entry from a couple of weeks ago regarding his suggestion to address the current rise in gas prices by installing more public transportation. Now, a lot of folks I know would decry this as "more government intervention," and I'm not entirely sure I disagree with that impulse, but I do think that infrastructure is one of the things that government should be involved in building, and that the lack of infrastructure (such as public transportation) is a major impediment to large numbers of people making the sacrifice necessary to drive fewer cars. Also, it should be noted that this kind of intervention takes place best at the local level, as opposed to the federal one.

In any event, Reich's entry represents an attempt to make a suggestion toward action in regard to the situation. Unfortunately, Reich himself seems pretty bleak about the prospects of such action ever taking place, and even in a "best case scenario," it's action that couldn't hope to see a benefit for many years, as it will take that long to put public transportation systems that don't already exist in place. But I actually found the comments to Reich's blog entry at least as interesting as, if not more so than, the entry itself. Some agreed with Reich's sentiments, while others disagreed. But through the thread, a general sentiment arose toward discussing as many options toward dealing with the need to reduce fuel consumption as possible. I hope that this discussion continues. As more people talk about it, the more likely it is that action will take place, whether taken by governmental entities or the private sector.

One person suggested that more people should bike to work. I'm sympathetic to that idea. It's both good for the environment and for the biker. Indeed, I was actually looking into the possibility of purchasing a bike for myself just recently. Ultimately, although I certainly think that biking should be encouraged, I simply can't see biking as a viable alternative to driving for more than a few people. As one person pointed out, not everyone lives in an area conducive to biking, nor is everyone is physically able to bike to work every day (even in those bike-friendly areas). Also, not everyone lives close enough to their place of employment for biking to be an option. I myself live about 6-and-a-half miles from work. Perhaps I could conceivably "work up" to biking that kind of distance twice a day, but I almost certainly couldn't handle it immediately. I'm just not in good enough physical shape.

Another person, essentially agreeing with Reich's basic idea, commented on the bus systems that exist needing considerable expansion before they can be a viable alternative for the masses. I myself have taken to using the bus systems more recently, but it's easy to see problems in the current system. As it stands, buses are pretty inconsistent about maintaining the schedule that the lines have already set in place. If a bus is running late, or has an accident, the whole system is messed up, as you have to wait for another half-an-hour (or longer) in many areas before the next bus arrives. Even for the individual person that simply misses the bus by a few minutes, such a delay can be devastating, but it's a serious deficiency in the way buses are currently run that such problems happen as often as they do, affecting large groups of people at a time. Indeed, it is this kind of difficulty that causes many otherwise-well-meaning people to continue to drive their cars rather than use public transportation. Then there's the matter of the cost of bus fares. One person in the thread did the math for gas consumption at current prices, and noted that it may actually be cheaper to drive than to ride! Although I'm sympathetic to the response that noted that the "math" person was only counting the cost of gas itself, and not things like "car payments, insurance... registration, maintenance or parking fees," I'm not sure that was a fair response, either. Most of us, I expect, won't be getting rid of our cars altogether, so we'll still be dealing with most of those expenses whether we ride the bus or not. At best, I figure we'll cut down on parking expenses and maintenance. Between these expenses, we'll save a bit more than just the cost of gas by riding the bus, but the bus fares ensure that it isn't a "slam dunk" in purely personal economic terms.

My personal desire is to see more light rail trains put into place. The Los Angeles area has such a system, but the line I'd use to get to work stops about half-way between where I work and where I live, rendering it useless for my own purposes. There are plans in place that would extend that line out, and there's a currently-defunct station only a block from where I live that would be renovated if and when the light rail line comes out this far. Unfortunately, these plans are currently unfunded, and although the city of Monrovia (where I live) is gung-ho about seeing the extension happen, the company that runs the trains is more interested in projects focusing on the city of Los Angeles itself for the time being. Moreover, there's some active opposition to the train coming in for various reasons. One that I hear pretty often is that the train won't actually result in all that many fewer cars on the streets, since many of the people who would take the train are people that currently take the bus! That might be true, but I think is too simplistic an excuse. Trains tend to run more frequently (and more efficiently!) than buses, and so a lot of people that are put off of riding the buses because of the scheduling difficulties would not be as inconvenienced by the trains. Trains are also much less prone to mechanical failures than buses, making it less likely that failures will occur that tie up the entire system, although when such failures do occur, they can admittedly be even more difficult to clear up.

I'm a little surprised that carpooling was only given a minor consideration, but perhaps that's because people seem to find the coordinating of personal schedules necessary to make this happen even more off-putting than buses. I know that I've found it difficult to carpool even with my own wife, who also works at Fuller, but who does so part-time and has evening commitments that I do not have. Even still, I should think that encouraging carpools would have to be part of the solution to getting fewer cars on the streets.

Whatever else is true, I'm convinced that the problem of high fuel prices and high fuel consumption requires a multi-faceted solution, rather than some one-size-fits-all idea. I likewise believe that these solutions will need to come from both governmental bodies and people-at-large. Perhaps it's actually a good thing that the prices have gotten so high, since more people are starting to realize that they simply can't go on as they have been. I'll see you on the bus!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Energon Perceptor

Although there is a sense in which each Transformers toyline is self-contained, it has become not-uncommon for a new toyline to have ties to the previous (or perhaps even an older) one. The Energon line is supposed to take place about a decade after Armada. It perhaps therefore makes sense that some characters from that line were brought back in all-new forms. This was the case for the Street Action Team, although they are no longer called that on their new toys' package. Instead, these new versions came out under the name of their combined form: Perceptor.

Ostensibly, High Wire, Sureshock and Grindor are supposed to be "more advanced" vehicles than they were in Armada. High Wire is now a motorcycle instead of a bicycle. Sureshock is an ATV instead of a scooter, and Grindor is now some kind of hover-thingy instead of a rocket-powered skateboard. However, it seems to me that Grindor and Sureshock's color-schemes got switched around somehow. This makes properly identifying these characters a bit confusing (You may have noticed that I've switched the two around in the picture, when compared to the analogous image from last week. From left to right, those are High Wire, Grindor and Sureshock.).

I consider the individual robot forms of the Energon versions of these characters at least moderately more successful than their Armada versions. High Wire now has at least one appendage that looks like an arm, and none of the robots has a face that splits right down the middle for transformation. Grindor still suffers a bit in the hand department, but all-around, these toys are a marked improvement.

Even so, the best mode for these toys is, again, their combined form. In most regards, this version of the Perceptor mode is better than the Armada version, as well. It does suffer a little for having his head so far back, and therefore not properly aligned atop his own shoulders, but the Armada version had a "floating head problem," too. All in all, if you only get one version of this team, this is the one to get (not accounting for the many recolors that exist of both the Armada and Energon molds, of course).

The next toyline to come out of Hasbro, Cybertron, was also considered to be a part of the "Unicron Trilogy," but High Wire, Grindor and Sureshock did not take part. Instead, a new set of "core" Mini-Cons was introduced. I'll deal with them next week.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Get Smart: The KAOS Communications Network

In honor of the release of the new Get Smart movie in theaters this Friday, I am posting a piece of fan fiction I wrote more than 15 years ago. I believe it was for my Junior year in high school, and I was given a project to interview 10 different people on what the 1960's were like. I was then to take all that information (and only that information. I was not allowed to cite any reference books or similar works!) and compile it in any way that I chose. When I'm given that kind of freedom, I like to run with it, and so I used those references and put together a Get Smart story where KAOS caused one of the most newsworthy events of that decade.

It should be noted that, because this story was originally written as part of this project, it contains a few elements that I'm sure I wouldn't have included if I were simply writing the story to be writing a story. You'll see some lists and opinions expressed that are there simply as a kind of "info dump" to relate what I'd gotten out of those interviews. I do not consider this something one should normally do when writing, and it should be kept in mind that I was still quite young when I wrote this particular piece so long ago. That said, I've made no attempt to edit it, except to clean up some typographical errors.

It should go without saying that I do not own the rights to any of these characters or concepts, and that this work is strictly a piece of "fan fiction," not intended to infringe on any copyrights. Should I get a message from the rightsholders, I will delete this post immediately. However, it is my understanding that most rightsholders are okay with such fan fiction if it is not used for monetary gain, and will turn a "blind eye" to the infringement (which still occurs despite the lack of intention). In that understanding, I'm going to go ahead and post this story. I should also note that Get Smart purists will probably see a couple of places whereby this story doesn't fit into the existing Get Smart canon especially well. I'm already aware of a couple of things, myself, but I expect that most, more casual, Get Smart fans won't notice....

It was just another day on the job for Agent 29. Agent 29 was one of Control's youngest agents, a mere 23 years old. Because of this fact, Control often had Agent 29 pose as a teenager to infiltrate KAOS encampments. After all, who would suspect a kid? Tonight, the chief had ordered Agent 29 to watch a program on the recently developed KAOS Television Network. There were suspicions that KAOS was using this network as a means of subjugating the youth of America. Control had to find out how. No sooner did Agent 29 turn on the TV set than he fell into a trance, proceeded to his car, and drove to a farm in southeastern New York state.

A few days later, Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86, reported to the chief's office. The chief had a mission for Max.

"Hi, Chief!" Max said.

"Hello, Max," the chief responded. "KAOS is up to it again."

"Up to what, Chief?"

"Agent 29 disappeared a few days ago. He was supposed to be looking into a new KAOS Communications Network."

"KAOS has an entire communications network?" Max asked, astounded. "How many forms of communication are we talking about?"

"Well, they've got..." the chief started, but Max interrupted.

"Wait a minute, Chief. Isn't this top security?"

"Yes," the chief said reluctantly.

"Then shouldn't we be using the cone of silence?"

"But Max, the cone of silence never works. Every time we use it, something terrible happens."

"But Control Procedure specifically states that in matters of top security, we should use the cone of silence."

"All right, Max. Sit down." The chief directed Max to a chair in front of his desk. After they both sat down, the chief hit a button, and a giant plastic double-domed encasement came down over Max's and the chief's heads.

"Well," the chief started, "KAOS is using graddio, ttellevvisssioonn, ddrrivve-inn mmovvie theeattors, andd olldd bbookks stoo subbblimminnally affecct thee mminnds of Amerriccca's yyouth."

"Eh?" Max said. "Wwhat kkind of realltors?"

"Nott realltors! Ttheattors!"

"Rreal ddoors!?!? Why woudd KAOZZ use ffakke ddoors?"

Growing impatient, the chief hit a button. "Larrabee! Razzze the conne off zilenzze!"

The intercom crackled. "What, Chief? Who plays the violins?"

"RAISE THE CONE OF SILENCE!!!!"

The cone of silence rose above Max and the chief once again. "Not 'real doors,' Max!" The chief informed. "Theaters! Drive-in theaters!"

"Oh," Max replied. "Sorry about that, Chief."

"KAOS has somehow created an entire communications network involving radio, television, drive-in movie theaters, and old books to send subliminal messages directed at young people. However, I've even heard of a case where a 50-year old man turned into a hippie after reading Gone with the Wind."

"Excuse me, Chief. How do you turn an old man into a hippie?"

"KAOS is broadcasting subliminal messages at certain intervals over reruns of Ed Sullivan, Lost in Space, Bewitched, Andy Griffith, My Favorite Martian, The Beverly Hillbillies, and many other popular shows. Even radio's "Wolfman Jack" has been turning kids into drug-crazed hippies."

"So, what's my job, Chief?" Max asked eagerly.

"First, I'd better get Agent 99 in here." The chief pressed a button on his console. "Larabee, send Agent 99 in, please." A few moments later, Agent 99, Max's attractive female sidekick, walked into the room.

"You asked for me, Chief?" 99 asked.

"Yes. You've already been briefed on KAOS' new communications network, I understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good, I want you to work with Max on cracking this case. As you know, KAOS has been responsible for the major increase in rebellious youth in our society today. In fact, we believe that they were responsible for the enormous gathering in Woodstock, New York two days ago. If that is true, their headquarters may be located there."

"So," Max started, "we know 'who,' 'what,' 'where,' and 'how.' What we need to find out is 'why.'"

"What?" the chief asked.

"Not 'what,' Chief, 'why.' We already know what KAOS is up to."

"Stop that, Max!" the chief shouted. "Anyway, here's the plan. I want you and 99 to go to Woodstock posing as hippies. Once there, you're to find out where KAOS Communications is located, and destroy the operation. Now, you got all that?"

"Not all of it, Chief," Max said.

"Why, what part didn't you get?" the chief asked.

"The part after 'here's the plan,'" Max said.

"99, help him, please," the chief pleaded. "Now, I've asked Carlson in the lab to devise equipment for you. I want you to see what he's come up with."

When Max, 99 and the chief arrived at the lab, Carlson was waiting for them.

"Ah! I see you've arrived," Carlson responded. "I've got some very interesting items for you." Carlson picked up a wig. "You'll need the long-haired wigs with the beads in them to fit in. They have special earphones in them that will allow you record whatever you hear, while eliminating any subliminal messages that might be present." He gave one wig each to Max and 99.

"Now, these are special sunglasses. With these you'll filter out any visual subliminal messages, such as those KAOS prints in books." Carlson gave out two pairs of sunglasses.

"And, finally, these beads." Carlson held two long strands of beads. "The bead necklaces are made up of many tiny grenades. To use one, simply take the bead off the string, and throw it." He handed out the beads.

"Excuse me, Carlson," Max asked. "But what happens if the string breaks and all the beads fall off?"

"Then you have two seconds to avoid being blown to kingdom come!"

"Oh!" was Max's reply.

Soon, Max got dressed up in hiphugger bell bottom pants, tie-dye shirt, peace symbols, beads, wig and sunglasses. 99 wore a miniskirt, a round collared blouse, a flower that could fire two bullets, and the beads, wig, and sunglasses. They were then transported to New York. When they got to the farm where the celebration had taken place, Max and 99 found a large number of people still there.

"There are still so many people here, Max," 99 commented. "Where do we start to look for KAOS."

"Quiet, 99, I'm thinking." While Max thought, 99 heard the sounds of Beatles tunes coming from behind them.

"Max, if we follow the music, we might find where it's being broadcast from."

"I've got it, 99!" Max exclaimed. "If we follow the music, we might find where it's being broadcast from!"

"Good thinking, Max." 99 sighed.

They proceeded towards two loudspeakers, which were now playing Mamas and the Papas music. As Max and 99 approached the speakers, they were stopped by a familiar voice.

"Schtop right there, Schmart!"

Max and 99 turned around to see Siegfried and Starker, two of KAOS' top agents.

"A clever dizguise, Schmart," Siegfried commented. "But you didn't actually expect us to fall for it, did you?"

"KAOS is going to be proud of us, huh, Siegfried?" Starker asked. "We've captured Control's top agents. They'll probably play trumpets for us when we get back home. 'Doo, Doodoo, doodoo, doodoo, doodoo!'" Starker imitated a trumpet.

"Schtarker! Schtarker! Nyecht!" Siegfried shouted. "This is KAOS! Ve don't 'doo, doo' here!" They took Max and 99 below ground to the secret headquarters.

As Siegfried and Starker led Max and 99 to their prison cells, Siegfried explained. "Of course, ve're behind all dis! Ve have acquired the rights to broadcast the most popular television shows of the decade. There doesn't exist a teenager in America who doesn't vatch Bonanza, Rawhide, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Hogan's Heroes, I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Laugh-in, Hawaii-Five-O, or Gilligan's Island! (I love dat Gilligan! He iz zo funny!) Ve even have National Geographic Schpecials! Unt, in case some nincompoop doesn't vatch TV, ve have a radio schtation unt drive-in movie theaters! (Imagine dat, Schtarker, a teenager who doesn't vatch TV! Hah!) Ve even put subliminal messages in books! Myztaries unt Romance novels verk particularly vell."

"But why, Siegfried?" 99 asked.

"Because chiltren are de future! If ve make de chiltren of America rebellious, unt deschtroy der minds vith LSD unt other drugs, de future of America is deschtroyed!"

By this time, Max and 99 had arrived at their prison cells. Siegfried and Starker locked their enemies up, and returned above ground. Only one KAOS guard remained to watch over Max and 99. 99 shot the guard with her flower gun. She then shot the lock open with her second shot. The noise brought the attention of other KAOS agents. Max fumbled with his bead necklace, trying to remove a bead grenade.

"Max, be careful!" 99 shouted.

"Don't worry, 99, I know what I'm doing," Max said. At that point, the necklace slipped off and hit the ground.

"Max!" 99 screamed and the two ran around the nearest corner and raced behind cover. The explosion was tremendous. Most of the underground broadcasting equipment was destroyed. Max and 99 were pretty scratched up, but okay. As they proceeded back above ground, they found that the party continued the same as before. They found that enough teenagers had brought their own music that the loss of the KAOS sound system had no effect.

"I don't understand, 99," Max said. "With KAOS' broadcasting equipment destroyed, these kids should be free from KAOS' subliminal commands."

"Most of the damage has already been done, Max," 99 replied. "These kids have taken so much acid that they have lost their grip on reality."

"It's a pity," Max agreed. "But at least KAOS won't be attracting any more kids to this place. By the way, were are Siegfried and Starker?"

"They were above ground when the explosion went off," 99 said. "They probably ran off when they realized their equipment had been destroyed. But it's awful what happened to those other agents. They must have been killed. I wonder if we're really and better than they are."

"Of course we are, 99. We have to shoot, kill, and destroy. We represent everything that's wholesome and good in this world." Then Max pauses, reflecting on the meaning of his words.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Summer Begins

Yeah, yeah. I know that, technically, the summer doesn't actually begin until the 20th. But for most of us in the academic world, we mark the beginning of summer by the end of the academic year. For most of Fuller, that was Friday. All student assignments (should) have been turned in, and Fuller had its commencement ceremony this past weekend. Although professors and TAs still have all of that grading ahead of them, most of us can say that the summer has now begun.

This past week was a particularly crazy one, as my office is the one that receives many (but by no means all) School of Theology assignments. Sometimes, I can deal with the increase in chaos just fine. Other times, not so well. If I was anything less than professional and polite with anyone who turned in a paper here (or who tried to turn in a paper that didn't, in fact, come here) last week, please accept my apologies.

My own summer plans are a bit in flux. I do expect to be able to take a trip in July to be a Small Group Leader at two weeks of the Montreat Youth Conferences in Montreat, NC. Although I'm a bit nervous about taking on this responsibility that I've never done before, I am very much looking forward to seeing Montreat and being a part of the Youth Conferences again. Thanks to Blogger's "scheduling" feature, I'm already making arrangements to ensure that the Friday Transformer reviews will continue uninterrupted. I'm still deciding what to do about Mondays and Wednesdays during that time, and will no doubt have more to say as July approaches.

The summer is also a season for both Michelle's and my birthdays (hers is on Saturday, mine is in August) and our anniversary (end of August), so we're hoping to take a few "mini-vacations" that don't actually involve a great deal of travel (I don't need to mention gas prices, do I?) to celebrate.

But beyond those things, I'm not sure what the summer holds. In the short run, I'll be moving books from office to office as the School of Theology Dean's Office switches places with the SOT Academic Programs Office (my own office isn't moving, but since I work for the Dean's Office, I still help with the move). But in the long run, I'm finding this particular time this year to be one of enormous potential, but little certainty. There are several things in the works (including that stint in Montreat) that all have the potential to be life-changing, but it could just as easily be the case that I'll find myself in very much the same place come September as I am now. I don't know if that's good or bad, but I do expect that there will be some interesting times ahead. I'll to keep everyone posted as I'm able.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: The Street Action Mini-Con Team

When discussing Armada Unicron, I briefly mentioned the creation of the "Mini-Cons," small Transformers that added a new faction to the Transformers saga. Three of the most prominent Mini-Cons in the Armada toyline were (as pictured from left to right in the picture) High Wire, Sureshock, and Grindor--collectively known as the Street Action Mini-Con Team. These three look best in their vehicle modes, at least when viewed individually, so let's start with that picture.

These three Mini-Cons were the first discovered at the beginning of the Armada storyline, and each quickly formed a bond with one of the three human children who also played pivotal roles to the story: Rad, Carlos, and Alexis. There, I've acknowledged the humans' existence. We'll speak no more about it.... ;)

I wish I could write more enthusiastically about the robots themselves, but the robot modes of two of these three are really pretty sad. High Wire is an interesting attempt to do a bicycle at such a small scale, but he's pretty pathetic looking. Sureshock is the only Transformer I know of offhand who's robot face is actually split down the middle during transformation! And neither of them have proper hands! At least Grindor isn't too bad, but he doesn't really save the set on his own.

What does make this set worth discussing is the fact that they combine into a single, larger, robot (although still not very large) named Perceptor. I still have no idea why Hasbro chose to name this guy Perceptor. He has absolutely nothing in common with the Generation One character of that name. But, if one ignores the name, he's a pretty decent gestalt, and makes the set worth having. I just never, ever, transform the team out of their combined form (except, of course, to take pictures such as these!).

Armada was only the first step of what eventually came to be referred to by fans as the "Unicron Trilogy." These three characters showed up again in new forms in the second step: "Energon." I'll deal with these guys' Energon forms next week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Joining Up and Letting Go

This past Sunday, I officially became a member of Knox Presbyterian Church. Knox has been a "home" for the better part of the past year, and is proving to be a place of growth and opportunity in the name of Christ, and I am glad to be more committed to the people here. I have spent the past couple of Thursdays attending their membership class, during which potential members have been taught about the history of the church (both "big c" and "little c") and the basics of the theology of the Presbyterian tradition in particular. Having already earned an MDiv, and having pursued ordination as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at one point, most of this was, of course, not new to me. But I was glad to have the refresher, as well as to get the opportunity to get to know a few of the people of this church a bit better.

But as glad as I am to "join up" with this particular church, this move also represents a bit of "letting go" that I'm still struggling with. As most of my friends and family know, I have spent the past year or so searching for a new job. Part of this is due to the fact that, with my wife working on her PhD, I am the only full-time wage-earner between us, and the cost of living in California dictates that what we are currently making between the two of us isn't enough to continue to pay all of our bills and pay off our debts from when we both were students. Fuller is a great environment in which to work--if I didn't think so, I wouldn't have stayed here for the past eight years!--but it just doesn't pay as much as I should be earning, given my experience and training. But, the truth is, besides looking for a higher income, I've also been in need of a change more personally. Eight years is a long time to work as a Faculty Assistant. Most people in this job stay only for a year or two, and it's fairly clear that the intention is for most staff positions within the School of Theology to support students who everyone already knows on the front-end will take these jobs to support their ability to earn their degrees, but who will leave once the degree is completed. And while I'm working full-time here, I'm getting further and further away from my church-based experience, which I fear is damaging my viability as a potential paid church worker.

I've spent most of my attention during my job search looking for church jobs. Although I am not currently eligible to be ordained as a pastor (at least, not within my chosen denomination), I still feel that church ministry is my calling. But the fact is that full-time non-ordained church jobs are few and far between. Also, I've been conducting my search from a place of "floating" between congregations, having left my previous church for reasons that I'd rather not go into here. Suffice it to say, this hasn't been ideal either, if only because I know that I need a church home for my own spiritual well-being, whether or not I'm working for that church! I've applied for a number of jobs that have been available, and have had a number of interviews, but so far nothing has panned out. In the meantime, I've resisted becoming a member of (and therefore making a commitment to) a new congregation, despite the need for a stable church home of my own. The reason for this is that I knew that if I ever successfully landed a church job, I would need to start worshiping there, and being committed to a church that cannot provide me with an income would either 1) make accepting an offer at another church difficult, or 2) require me to leave my current church all-too quickly after having "committed" to them. I do not take such commitments lightly, and becoming a member at Knox means that I am making a conscious decision to at least "tone down" my job search for the time being. I'm still keeping my eyes open, but the focus of my job search will simply have to be on non-church jobs for the time being. If something should "fall in my lap," I'm certainly willing to consider it, but I know better than to expect such serendipity.

That's not to say that I see my membership at Knox as having no potential benefits to my future career. I hope to be involved in the various ministries there on a volunteer basis, especially in the area of Christian Education, and hope that such involvement will improve my résumé for future job searches. But I know Knox's reality for the time being is that I will need to have a paying job elsewhere. For now, that means keeping my current job at Fuller. Even if it doesn't pay as well as my wife and I would like, it's certainly better than I'd do at a part-time job, and I may even be able to find other opportunities here, where I am already well-known. Of course, I'll keep looking for other opportunities elsewhere, too.

But still, I'm frustrated at yet another delay in getting my career properly started. At 33, I do not feel as though I have established my career where it's supposed to be. It's hard not to compare myself to my parents and their generation. For them, to not be "established" at my age was definitely seen as a problem, and I know that my parents, although sympathetic, do not fully understand my career struggles. But I also know that my generation's struggles are rather different than those of my parents' generation, and that it is simply not fair to compare the two. That doesn't make my frustration any less, nor does it make the pain of "letting go" of what I feel to be my calling, even if only for a short time, any easier. But I do think that I've made the right decision for now. I hope that I will be able to be of service to God and to the people of Knox Presbyterian Church, even as I hope that I will find opportunities that will help me for the future.

Monday, June 09, 2008

My Dad, the Model Maker

The following is an article written by my sister Ruth, which recently appeared in the newsletter of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Louisville, KY (my home church growing up, where my family still worships).
Stories Behind the People: Richard Wright (by Ruth J. Wright)

When you think of Richard Wright, many of you may picture "Nancy's husband," or "the guy with the beard who sings in the choir," or "the guy who takes care of a lot of Property issues at church," or, more recently, "the guy who rides the Harley to church" (weather permitting) - but you may not know that Richard is a Model Maker. Richard has been putting together models "for as long as he can remember," and has built models of cars, trains, planes, and practically anything else you could think of. Thinking back to his school days, Richard would say his days in the wood and metal shop, or his drafting classes, or his time building sets for the college community theater troupe were infinitely more enjoyable than his other classes. At one time, Richard thought he might go into model-making for movies (his boss at Bechtel actually did some of the models for the original "Star Wars" movies). Richard's first professional job out of school was building models for Bechtel, an engineering, construction, and project development company that works on projects worldwide. After working for Bechtel for 10+ years, moving his young family around the country whenever a job was completed, Richard decided to settle in Louisville and begin work as a Piping Designer for DuPont. He has now been with DuPont as a contract employee since the mid-1980s. When he's not at work, Richard continues to build models at home - some for pleasure (you should see the fantastic garden and basement railroad he's been constructing for years), and some for his independent modeling company, "Model It Wright." A few years ago, Richard was contracted to build models of some of the proposed bridge designs for the Ohio River. The picture [above] shows Richard with 2 of the bridges he built for the city. These bridge models have been on display at the Kentucky Center for the Arts and several other prominent locations since their completion. His current projects involve more bridge-building, helping his daughter, Ruth, renovate her house, and continued development of his garden railroad (and koi pond), which will be featured in the 2008 World's Greatest Hobby on Tour in June.

Every member and friend of Fourth Presbyterian Church has a story to tell. We want to hear yours! Please send your stories to Joe Raymond or Ruth Wright for inclusion in upcoming issues of the church Newsletter.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Weekly Transformers Feature: Titanium Scourge

To hear some Transformers fans tell it, die-cast construction is the epitome of toy design, and plastic is an inferior substitute. I'm not one of those fans. I find that plastic allows for more durable toys (metal actually chips and breaks when stressed! Plastic can bend if it needs to!), and can be molded into a far greater variety of shapes, allowing for more complex designs and transformations. Still, if having a sheer heft is something one wants out of one's toy robots, there is certainly a feel to die-cast metal that one simply cannot duplicate with plastic.

When Hasbro's subdivision, Galoob, started releasing Transformers with die-cast designs (the first all-new such designs since the mid-80s) with their "Titanium" sub-line, many fans shouted for joy. Others of us were put off by the $15 price tag that went on the transformable toys (there were smaller toys for cheaper, but even the Transformers characters at this price point were just figurines). I've commented quite a few times over that I'm pretty price-conscious, so it's probably no surprise that I haven't picked up many of the Titaniums. In fact, the one I'm reviewing today is one that I got as a gift.

One of the advantages of having a sub-line such as "Titaniums," besides providing an outlet for those fans who ached for a return to the days of die-cast construction, is that the sub-line allows for certain characters who just don't "fit" in the context of any of the currently existent main lines. For example, Scourge (not to be confused with this guy from a few weeks ago) was a fairly significant character back in 1986. Characters that came out that year either were introduced in the animated movie, or the final full year of the cartoon that came out after it (assuming that they showed up in the cartoon at all!). And no toy had been released for this character since the two nigh-identical toys released in 1986 and 1987, so Scourge had been in limbo for quite some time.

Scourge was created during the events of the animated Transformers movie by Unicron, ostensibly to help Galvatron in his quest to retrieve the Autobot Matrix of Leadership (the only thing that could destroy Unicron). After Unicron's destruction at the end of the movie, Scourge remained one of Galvatron's most loyal troops. Never having been created to do battle on Earth, Scourge transforms into an odd "futuristic" vehicle that's something of a cross between a hovercraft and a spaceship. The Titanium version of the toy updates the G1 version in a fairly subtle way that nonetheless captures the spirit of the original rather well.

Now, a disclaimer should be made here, although Titaniums are called such because of the die-cast construction that went into them, no Transformer (not even the original die-cast Transformers of the first few years of G1) has ever been made entirely out of metal. Even die-cast Transformers have some plastic parts, and Titanium Scourge is no exception. In the case of Scourge, the metal is almost entirely focused on two areas, the core of the robot (the chest, if you will) and the legs. These metal blocks are held together with various plastic parts: arms, thighs, the head, and the wings. But the preponderance of die-cast in this robot means that Titanium Scourge falls prey to the same limitations that early '80s die-cast Transformers did, and the transformation is pretty simple as a result. Rotate and connect the legs while pointing the toes forward, close the wings around the arms to form a shell, and then raise the head into position. This is more or less the same transformation as G1 Scourge had, so perhaps it doesn't seem like such a limitation, but it's still considerably simpler than most other Transformers of the modern era. In fact, this is one of the few Titanium Transformers that was based on a character that already had an existing toy where it can nonetheless be said that the Titanium version is an improvement on the original, rather than a toy that had to sacrifice certain details for the sake of including die-cast.

Although Titanium Transformers lasted for a couple of years, they never did sell altogether well (largely due to the $15 price) and stores were reluctant to carry more characters when they still had less popular ones warming the shelves, exacerbating the problem. Hasbro/Galoob finally threw in the towel on this sub-line about a year ago, arguably just as they were finally starting to figure out how to take full advantage of the unique combination of opportunities and limitations of the concept. One can only hope that concepts revealed at BotCon last year, featuring the return of classic characters Cosmos, Shockwave, and Arcee in Titanium form, can see the light of day in some non-Titanium line in the future!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Game Show Review: Million Dollar Password

I got home late from dinner on Sunday night, and so missed the first part of Million Dollar Password on CBS. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I was able to catch the episode Monday night, enabling me to share my impressions of the "newest" game show on the prime time scene. I say "newest" in quotes because Password is one of the true classic games, having roots as far back as the early '60s. However, Million Dollar Password is the first new version of Password in nearly 20 years, and so it's all-new for almost an entire generation of viewers who weren't even born when Super Password, the most recent previous version of the franchise, was on the air.

There's much to like about this new version. The basic premise of using one-word clues to communicate one-word answers to your partner remains intact. The producers have wisely chosen not to drag a single game out through an entire hour (as so many modern games shows do), but instead gave us two full matches in the single episode. The Million Dollar Game (I don't know that the show calls it that, but I need to differentiate it from the "Elimination Round," which is so named...) is fairly easy to understand and exciting to watch. Regis, of course, is a solid game show host, and keeps the game moving quite well.

That's not to say I don't have criticisms. The addition of a timer for every single part of the game makes this version of Password resemble its cousin Pyramid a little too closely. Also, whereas Password has traditionally been a competitive game, the competitive aspect of this version is clearly taking a back-seat to the single-contestant Million Dollar Game. I'm of the school of thought that the single-contestant part should be a "bonus round," and that the bulk of the game should be played in competition with another contestant. I also miss the "Password Puzzles" that were introduced in Password Plus and Super Password, but since that was an evolution beyond the original concept, perhaps their loss isn't such a tragedy.

Indeed, most of my criticisms with Million Dollar Password have less to do with this particular game, and more with trends that I've seen in game shows ever since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire resurrected the game show genre from near oblivion (note that not all of these issues were present with Millionaire itself):
  1. Does every game show these days have to be played in a round stadium, with the audience on all sides?
  2. Let the contestants (and the celebrities) have a seat! Don't make them stand up the whole time!
  3. I think the emphasis on the Million Dollar Game to the exclusion of the "Elimination Round" is a side-effect of so many games spending all their time on a single contestant vs. "the game" instead of players competing against each other. Competition isn't a bad thing. Don't run away from it!
  4. Yes, it's another Money Tree. Lots of game show fans hate these. I'm not so set against them, but do feel that it's an overdone concept. If you have to have one, this one works pretty well.
  5. Don't give the player the words ahead of time! (In Million Dollar Password, this only happens in later parts of the Million Dollar Game, to entice the contestant to take the risk of playing on.) Find another way to tempt your contestants!
  6. The audience should not applaud in the middle of clue-giving. Especially in a timed game that requires such deep concentration as this one, this is a massive distraction.
  7. Too many shows these days are clearly played (in studio) for hours, then edited to fit the one-hour time slot. This causes some suspense to be lost, because we know that a contestant that just won say, $50,000, isn't going to take his money and go home if there's still 15 minutes of the show left to go. Likewise, a contestant who won a round with less than a couple of minutes left in the hour is pretty much guaranteed to say "I've had enough," no matter how much money may still be potentially on the table. Game shows used to be filmed "live to tape" (some still do, of course, but every one I can think of that does so has it's roots going back more than 20 years, and no prime-time game show currently does). That is to say, the cameras only stopped (and editing only occurred) when a commercial break came up, or something unforeseen happened requiring the game to stop and the error to be fixed. More modern shows would do well to restore this practice. Let the game play naturally. Don't force it!
  8. For that matter, it isn't necessary for every show in prime time to be an hour long. Many (maybe even most?) game shows work quite nicely in a half-hour time slot. The fact that NBC is pushing Deal or No Deal into as long as two hours (on occasion) is pure insanity!
All that said, the first episode of Million Dollar Password is clearly a hit, with very strong ratings. I hope that these strong ratings continue with subsequent episodes. The show is actually a rather good one, but with a few tweaks, it can be truly great.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Political Punting

Politics loomed rather large in the news this weekend, what with the news coming out of the Democratic National Party Rules Committee on Saturday and its aftermath. On one hand, I'd like to comment on that. One another, I'm just getting so tired about the whole thing, and really don't feel up to handling the inevitable comments that will come from those who disagree, or (more likely, actually) just don't understand me.

So, I'm going to do what anyone would do. I'm punting!

Here's a blog entry from Fuller President Richard Mouw on qualities he'd like to see in a Presidential candidate. It's quite interesting.

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