Wednesday, September 30, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 1: Context

For the past year or so, I've been doing weekly lectionary reflections on the unofficial Presbyterian Bloggers site (we use the word "ruminations" over there, mostly because I've never bothered to change the title I inherited from the guy who did such reflections before I took the job).  The idea is that people can have a chance to look at the readings suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary to be used in the following Sunday's worship.  The actual day of posting has changed a few times over the past year, but we've settled into a Wednesday slot for the past few months that seems to work pretty well.

David M. ScholerThis coming Sunday will be the first of a total of seven weeks in a row that the lectionary suggests a reading from the book of Hebrews.  Having just listened recently to a lesson on Hebrews, done at First Baptist Church of Pasadena by the late Dr. David M. Scholer back in 2001, I thought that it might be appropriate to spend some time with those messages here, as well.  Dr. Scholer's series lasted for six weeks, not quite long enough to cover the same time span that the lectionary will cover the book, but pretty close.

Here's a link to the first lesson: "The Context of Hebrews" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

Some quick observations:
  • Contrary to whatever you may have heard in church, this book was almost certainly not written by the apostle Paul.  I'm not talking about the same kind of controversy that surrounds the idea that Paul didn't write, say, the letters to Timothy and Titus.  Those letters at least claim to have been written by Paul within the letters themselves.  The letter of Hebrews contains no mention of who actually wrote it.
  • Hebrews was written with specifically pastoral intentions, attempting to deal with issues of faith and faithfulness.  It both encourages people to "hang in there" in terms of faith, but it also provides warnings of the consequences of failing to do so.
  • Especially since the announcement that the TNIV will no longer be published in a couple of years, there's been a lot of debate about how to translate Scripture properly.  Listening to Dr. Scholer talk about how the word translated in most versions of Hebrews as "perfection" might better be translated as "maturity" (despite having a literal meaning of "perfection" as well) reminds me of these modern debates.
  • The Romans of this period honored things that were ancient: "If it was old, it was good!"  This partly explains widespread Roman toleration of Judaism, despite distaste of the "strange" religion.  (A brief mention is made that the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70 "for other reasons," but this isn't elaborated on in this lesson.)  This tolerance was not extended to the "new" religion of Christianity.
  • Hebrews is considered by some the most "Jewish" book of the New Testament.  It certainly uses the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) very frequently, but this is also seen in how the book handles certain topics (priesthood and sacrifice, for example).
  • There's a section where Dr. Scholer likens Jesus' clearing of the temple to a person coming into a sanctuary on Sunday during morning worship, running up front, knocking the pulpit over, and then proceeding to tear the organ out of the wall.  I appreciate such reminders of the sometimes angry Jesus.
  • Just like people today, even the early Jewish Christians apparently needed some prodding to move out of their "comfort zones."  Despite Jesus' instructions to bring the gospel to the entire world, it took some time for Jewish Christians to make real overtures to Gentiles.  (This prodding came in the form of the vision to Peter and subsequent events)
  • The question of whether or not Gentiles should have to keep the Jewish law became "the single biggest fight in the early church."  The very question of how "Jewish" Christianity (a word not used until the 2nd century, but you get the idea) was to be was a major point of contention.  Hebrews both tries to highlight Christ as kind of an "ideal" Jew while at the same time setting the up Christ's work as a "new" thing separate from Judaism.  Although Christianity would eventually separate completely from Judaism, even to the unfortunate point of full-blown antisemitism, that's not what Hebrews is doing, although perhaps the seeds of that later separation are planted here.
Next Lecture

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    If I Only Had a Brain - The Wizard of Oz Turns 70

    In the spring of 1988, back when I was in the 8th grade, I starred as The Scarecrow in my middle school chorus' production of The Wizard of Oz. Basically, the play was just a scaled-down version of the 1939 Judy Garland movie (although with extra lyrics for "Over the Rainbow" and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" that, although written by Harburg and Arlen, weren't used in the movie), and watching it today is always mildly embarrassing. Of course, some of that is no doubt the embarrassment always felt at watching one's younger self make mistakes of the kind the older self has learned to avoid in the years since ("Watch your downstage foot!").

    Some of the embarrassment is also a bit unfair, in that one can't help but lose in a comparison between one's own performance and the better-known version. However well I may have performed as The Scarecrow, let's face it—I'm no Ray Bolger. That man was a genius! Compared to his performance, my Scarecrow may as well have been the Tin Woodsman without his oil can. (It seems that Bolger was 35 when that movie was released. The same age I am now.  That's kind of surreal...)

    But lest I dwell on being unfair to my 13-year-old self, The Wizard of Oz has been one of my favorite movies ever since. I've collected a small amount of Oz memorabilia, most of it Scarecrow-centric, and although it doesn't get anywhere near the amount of recognition that my Transformers collection does on this blog, it's still important to me.

    So I was actually a bit annoyed to learn this past week that I'd missed the 70th anniversary of the movie's 1939 release, which was apparently back in August, and was somehow totally unaware of the special one-night-only "Hi-Def" theatrical re-release last week. But perhaps I can be forgiven in light of other events that were unfolding that evening. Well, I'll go with that story, but I still wish I'd known about it....

    Of course, that special theatrical event was, itself, a part of the big publicity push for the "Ultimate Collectors Edition" Blu-ray release tomorrow (Tuesday, September 29th). I'm on the fence about whether or not I'll get that, which is actually saying something, since I not only already own this movie (a couple of times over), but don't even own a Blu-ray compatible player! Still, I at least didn't miss knowing about that part of the anniversary festivities!

    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Weekly Transformers Feature: Quake

    The Targetmasters of 1987 proved popular enough for Hasbro to continue the concept into 1988.  But rather than just create more robots with weapons that also turned into robots, they decided to offer a new twist: Double Targetmasters!  Although these toys were actually smaller than the original Targetmasters (and were even sold on cards instead of boxed, as the original Targetmasters were), they boasted two "Nebulan" figures that would become weapons for the larger robot.  Quake is an example of such a "Double Targetmaster."

    Like all Targetmasters, there is a sense in which Quake is, by himself, a normal Transformer.  If one were to lose his weapons, he'd still be a complete Transformer by himself.  You wouldn't be missing some vital body part or huge piece of his alt mode if the weapon were never recovered.  He'd just be weaponless.  This is in stark contrast to, say, the Headmasters, who kind of need their heads to be full-fledged robots.

    Indeed, since Quake turns into a tank, one could argue that he has (or, better yet, is) a weapon even without his Nebulan partners.  Of course, it bears mentioning that the turret itself is a removable piece, and although it could easily be replaced with one of the Nebulan weapons (as seen here), if the turret were lost, this mode really would seem incomplete.

    Pictured here (left to right) are the Nebulans, Heater and Tiptop.  In keeping with the smaller size of the toy they are packaged with, these two are completely immobile in humanoid mode, and don't even fold in half to transform like the Nebulan partners created for Targetmaster toys of the previous year (such as Stepper).  These guys "transform" simply by swinging a gun barrel down from behind.  Indeed, unlike most (but not all) Nebulans of the previous year, the "humanoid" forms of these toys don't even make any effort to hide the handles sticking right out of their chests!

    Like his larger forebears, Quake's Nebulans become weapons that he can use in either robot or vehicle mode.  However, for the Double Targetmasters, each of the weapons is designed so that one weapon can fit over the other weapon to create a "double-weapon," able to be used either on the vehicle mode (as seen here) or in robot mode.  You can put whichever Nebulan weapon you like on top of the other.  It works either way.

    Quake's tank turret is removable, as I mentioned earlier, and has a peg of the same size as the handles of the Nebulan weapons, meaning that Quake has the feature (unique among Double Targetmasters) of adding a third weapon to the combined weapon mode.

    A minor footnote.  From time to time, I make note of a toy that was exclusive to Japan, and not sold in the United States (at least, not during Generation One.  Many did eventually find their way to America some 20 years later).  Perhaps surprisingly, there are actually more molds that were sold in the United States, but never in Japan!  Quake is just one example of such an American-exclusive Transformer which has still never been sold in Japan (not even as a repaint)!  Fred's Workshop provides a list (apparently complied by someone else, but I don't know who "Greg" is).

    Thursday, September 24, 2009

    Update on My Mom's Hospital Trip

    Yesterday at about 10:00 am EDT, my mom (who still lives in Louisville, KY, where I grew up) experienced some odd symptoms of numbness running down her arm, and then her whole side.  This apparently lasted for several minutes, and so she told some of her co-workers about it, and was told to call her doctor, who told her to go to the nearest hospital.  After a 5-hour wait in the emergency room (I really need to start posting more about the need to reform our health care system!), she was checked in.  She was given an MRI, kept for observation overnight, and given an EKG this morning (apparently there have been other tests, as well).  So far, nothing has determined the cause of Mom's symptoms yesterday, and they've ruled out a stroke.  As of a message from my sister at about 10:00 am (PDT, 1:00 pm EDT), they are about to let Mom out of the hospital.  Here is the full report from my sister:
    [Mom's] just waiting for the doc to come back & release her, really. Awaiting results of the EKG (I think that's the correct acronym for echocardiogram) doesn't really expect it'll show anything, though.

    Anticipates that doc will let her go home after discussing those results, but lady who brings lunch said "she'd be by in awhile to take [mom's] order for dinner and breakfast."  There doesn't seem to be any reason to keep her another night, though.

    Anyway - doc said cholesterol levels are *slighty* elevated - not awful - but may be good to start her on cholesterol meds.

    And arterial scans indicate no major blockages, but some of the smaller arteries are rather narrow (and therefore, somewhat constricted), and so a low-dose aspirin regimen probably wouldn't hurt, either.
    That's all I have for now.  To those who have been following this story since yesterday via Facebook or Twitter, thanks for your continued prayers.

    UPDATE: 3:00 pm PDT - Apparently Mom's still got more tests scheduled, so will be staying another night.  Someone's not telling someone something....

    FURTHER UPDATE: Well, actually, they released Mom at around 9:30 pm (EDT) that evening, and didn't keep her a second night after all.  They never have determined any definitive cause, and Mom's feeling fine now, so let's just hope that aspirin does the trick.

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Are Both Sides Really Equally Bad?

    In a number of political discussions I've been a part of lately, when the discussion dwells for too long on some perceived bad behavior by a member of one party, someone at some point often says something to the effect of "both sides are just as bad."  I haven't yet determined whether it is proponents of "the left" or "the right" that are more prone to make this claim, but it does seem to me that it almost inevitably comes from the side that seems to be in the minority in a given debate.

    I tend to bristle a bit at this suggestion, which is probably a natural enough reaction (especially when it is used against my own position), but I do want to take a step back and try to be fair, and ponder the potential reality of such a claim for a bit.  Are Democrats and Republicans equally bad about ethical faux pas?

    Perhaps its just my Calvinist "total depravity" streak talking, but I certainly wouldn't dream of claiming that either side is without fault.  I've tried to be honest about Obama's failure to check his source when claiming that an Illinois man died after being denied insurance, for example (the man in fact got his insurance reinstated, and didn't die until three years later, hardly attributable to the original denial of coverage), even while criticizing people like Sarah Palin for accusing the left of setting up "death panels" or similarly ludicrous claims.  (Of course, these examples are simply on the issue of health care.  We could posit many, many others if we wanted to expand further)  There is no shortage of examples one could site when discussing politicians doing things in their own best interest.*  The only thing that would take effort might be finding a politician without such examples of what could charitably be called "a momentary failure of integrity."  This only means that politicians are human.

    But, even if all sin is equal in God's sight, it's certainly not the case that all failings have equal importance in the political sphere.  We'd be far more likely, for example, to forgive a politician who cheated on his wife than we would a politician who, say, gave active help to Al-Qaeda (we haven't found any who've actually done that yet, have we?).

    Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to want to push against the suggestion that "both sides are equally bad" is that it sets up two sides as 1) the only choices, and 2) either polar opposites that are always opposed to each other (with equal force that cancels each position out) or similar but equally wrong in all meaningful respects.  This is obviously not the reality.  There are quite a few "third parties" out there (a few of which have almost been viable in recent elections, I add somewhat bitterly), and each party has its own particular issues on which it stakes its identity.  It's entirely possible (if perhaps less common these days) to agree with the Republicans on one issue (abortion, for example), while falling in with the Democrats on another (taxation, let's say).

    However much we side with one party over the other, we do so precisely because we feel that they are the better choice on those issues that are important to us.  To dismiss them as "equally bad" when it comes to their admitted failings threatens to undermine the good that still remains.  Surely there are better ways of making the point that each party possesses limitations without dismissing arguments in this way.

    *And, to further illustrate the difficulty of determining if one side might really be worse than the other, I am reminded of a conversation with a friend the other day in which he argued that the media tends to side with one particular side, and that therefore any perceived imbalance of bad behavior on the other side is merely the result of the media's slant.  I actually disagree with my friend on both the extent and nature of the "slant," but will certainly concede that, just as no human being is 100% free of bias, neither is any media source.  I also concede that our perceptions of the world are invariably affected by what information we are exposed to, so if all I watch is, say, ESPN, I might think that the world has much more going on with football than it does about global warming.

    Monday, September 21, 2009

    Congratulations to Kristin Chenoweth!

    Having lamented the loss of Pushing Daisies recently, it is at least nice to see one of its stars, Kristin Chenoweth, receive the award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (specifically in regard to Pushing Daisies).  It's a bit of a shame that she's perhaps in the news even more for the fact that she had to be checked out for migraine immediately after getting the award (although I wonder if it was in fact Meniere's disease, a condition she's had to deal with for a long time, according to an interview on NPR's Fresh Air last April), but I'm glad that she's getting the recognition.


    Friday, September 18, 2009

    Weekly Transformers Feature: Beast Wars Megatron (crocodile)

    I wrote a bit about the origins of the Beast Wars line not that long ago, and even though that history is important to understanding this toy, it's probably best not to retread all that ground again so soon, so I'll just refer you to the entry on Beetle.  This version of Megatron was one of the very first toys to be released at retail as part of the Beast Wars line in 1996, being part of a two-pack with the original version of Optimus Primal.  Normally I review multiple toys that were packaged together at the same time, but when I got Megatron at BotCon this year, I purchased it loose, and I do not have Optimus Primal, so Megatron will have to stand on his own.

    Like the McDonald's Happy Meal toys that included Beetle, Megatron demonstrates a couple of signs of the Beast Wars concept still being in its infancy, and not quite yet broken away as an altogether new line of Transformers.  One indicator of this (only obvious if one knows how the Beast Wars line will eventually evolve) is this toy's alternate mode.  This version of Megatron is a crocodile, whereas pretty much every other version of Megatron in this line is a Tyrannosaurus Rex (the one other exception is a dragon, which is still far closer to a T-Rex than a crocodile!).

    Megatron's transformation is pretty simple.  Pull up on the tail, and the whole toy opens up to more or less the final robot mode.  All one really has left to do is pose the robot legs, make sure the crocodile legs are out of the way, and that the robot fists are fully in place.  You do also have to take the tail off of the back of the robot mode and flip a section over to create Megatron's weapon, which then goes in either fist.  Personally, I prefer to leave the tail on the back, but it's really not worth another picture here, and I'd be remiss if I didn't demonstrate the weapon, as mediocre as it is.

    I said that there were at least a couple of signs from this set that the Beast Wars concept was still not yet fully formed.  The other one is the mini-comic that was packed in.  The comic implies that the Megatron and Optimus Primal seen here are simply new, updated forms of Generation One (or, if you want to nitpick, Generation Two, but at this point there's really no difference) Megatron and Optimus Prime.  When the Beast Wars cartoon (which almost every other Beast Wars continuity claims as its own, and which used the later gorilla and T-Rex forms of Primal and Megatron, respectively) came out, it was clear that these characters were not the same as the originals, but merely shared their names.  This discrepancy, coupled with the unique crocodile beast mode, means that this toy may not represent the same character as the one usually referred to as "Beast Wars Megatron" at all!

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    My Brother, the Graphics Guru

    Amateur Transformers coverEver since my brother Nick was three (if not earlier), we've known that he was talented.  He would draw images of his favorite cartoon character (Goofy) that were well beyond the scribblings one would expect of a toddler.  Later years would add Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Mario, Link, the Street Fighter pantheon, and many other pop-culture icons (including, yes, Transformers, as demonstrated by this image I shared a while back).

    Nick's also developed some considerable computer skills, and currently works as the tech guru for one of the local auto service chains in the Louisville area.  His job allows him to do some work from home (clearing up a computer glitch over the network, for example), but also requires him to travel around northern Kentucky quite a bit when a computer needs hands-on attention.  It keeps him quite busy.

    Even so, Nick's artistic skills continue to find outlets.  A few years ago, he put up this web page to showcase a number of 3D models that he created.  Nick is a perfectionist par excellence (there's quite a bit of that in my family!), and these have been done with painstaking attention to detail.  In the case of Transformers like Optimus Prime here, he would actually measure the actual toy to precise levels (and, sometimes, taking the toy apart to make sure that individual pieces were accurately measured) so that the final product would be perfect.

    This perfectionist streak extends to video game designs, too.  Take this rendition based on the Super Mario Bros. game, for example.  Even though the original game is (obviously) not in three-dimensions, it was important to Nick to make everything "pixel perfect."  If you were to look at this image from the head-on perspective of the original game, you theoretically shouldn't be able to tell the difference.  Yet this was not directly copied from screen captures or any other part of the original game.  It was all drawn from scratch!  I invite you to check out other examples of Nick's work on his own page.

    Monday, September 14, 2009

    "You, Lie!" - Really? Why Would Wilson Have Done That?

    It's been all over the news by now.  While giving a speech to congress on health care, President Obama found himself interrupted by Republican representative Joe Wilson.

    I'm not really interested in whether Wilson was acting inappropriately for shouting "You lie!" to the President of the United States in the middle of an address to the nation, or whether or not Wilson should have apologized for it (as he has actually done to the President himself, but seems to be refusing to do to the rest of the House of Representatives).  I'm rather more interested in the fact that these kinds of outbursts are all but unheard of during such presidential speeches.  What causes a person to break decorum and tradition to interrupt the president in such a way?

    Yesterday at church, the pastor gave a sermon on the opening verses of Paul's letter to the Galatians.  Although in most of Paul's letters, there is an extended opening whereby Paul gives thanks to God for what God is doing through the congregation, Galatians is different.  In this letter, Paul launches almost immediately into a diatribe that includes suggesting that his opponents "be accursed" (KJV of that passage) not just once, but twice!  What causes Paul to act with such anger and vitriol?

    In the sermon, the pastor suggested that it is when we feel that our core values are being threatened, that we "feel the ground from beneath our feet begin to give way," that we often respond with the greatest anger.  For the apostle Paul, it was the idea that people were beginning to follow a "gospel" that was not truly a gospel at all, much less the gospel to which Paul had dedicated his life, that caused him to respond so forcefully.

    For Joe Wilson, I also expect that he was also responding to the feeling that his core values were being threatened.  I don't think that it was necessarily about the idea that illegal immigrants might get health care benefits (the thing that he accused Obama of lying about when Obama said that they wouldn't), per se.  Rather, I think it's bigger and deeper than that.  We've seen a number of examples in recent times that suggest that the people who disagree with Obama the strongest really do fear (however irrationally) that his policies threaten to undermine their deepest values.  Whether we're talking about immigration policy, gay rights, tax brackets, the bailout, or health care itself, there seems to be a group of people that are desperately afraid that if Obama gets his way, they will lose everything they believe is important.

    While a more cynical person might argue that Wilson's response was carefully calculated, I think that the lack of precedent (in America, anyway.  This kind of thing is more common in other countries) argues against this (to say nothing of Wilson's own statements saying that the cry was "spontaneous").  I think we saw a deeply visceral reaction here.  Although it's hard for me to get my head around the idea that Wilson really believes that Obama himself is consciously trying to get a policy passed that will provide for illegal immigrants (Obama's consistent statements to the contrary notwithstanding), it's not hard at all to imagine that Wilson believes that Obama's plans, if passed, would have that ultimate effect.  Faced with statements that denied that Obama's plans would do the things that so many Republicans deeply fear, but honestly believe, they would do, Wilson snapped.  He let out a visceral cry when he felt his core values being threatened farther than he could stand.

    Having cried out in a venue where such outbursts are not permitted, Wilson naturally apologized immediately.  But the threats (whether they be real or imagined) to Wilson's core values remain.  It's no surprise, therefore, that he's trying to be very careful at this point not to "give too much away."  If he apologizes too much, he risks sounding like he doesn't really believe that Obama's policies are wrong, and that they won't do the thing he thinks they'll do.  Too many apologies risk threatening the values that Wilson holds dear even further.

    Often, when I decry the deeply divisive nature of current political debate, I probably sound like I'm asking "can't we all just get along?"  There is definitely a sense in which I deeply wish that people would simply learn to act with better manners and greater decorum.  Perhaps Wilson's response, if my theories as to why it occurred are correct, hints at why this is so hard to do.  There is a not-insignificant number of people out there who positively hate our current president.  The fact that a lot of the arguments made against him ("he wasn't even born in America," for example) have little basis in reason or fact is beside the point.  People are honestly threatened by him.  Until this situation changes, we can only expect to see more hostility in the future.

    Friday, September 11, 2009

    Weekly Transformers Feature: Encore #10 Minibots Set

    Throughout most of the past decade or so, most Generation One reissues have originated in Japan.  Although it was the American Hasbro that originated the idea of taking convertible robot toys and creating a storyline and personalities for them (thus, creating the Transformers concept), Hasbro is, first and foremost, a toy company geared towards meeting the needs of the children's toy market, and children just don't care as much about toys from 20 years ago as adults do.

    The Japanese market is very different.  Collectibles made for an older audience are fairly commonplace, and there is clearly an audience of people who remember the original Transformers toys that, for whatever reason, would still like to buy those toys even today.  So the Japanese company responsible for Transformers toys (currently TakaraTomy in Japan, although this company is known merely as "Tomy" in the rest of the world) has been willing to put money and resources into locating old molds and/or restoring them so that old toys can be reissued for modern collectors.  If Hasbro does do a reissue, it tends to be only because Tomy (or Takara before them) has done so first.

    The Encore series is only the latest of several lines of Generation One reissues.  Some popular toys, such as Optimus Prime and Megatron, which had been reissued as recently as a few years previously (for the Transformers Collection line that I usually just refer to as "reissues" for entries such as the one I did for Skids last year) were reissued yet again for the Encore line, while other toys were reissued for the first time.  In the case of this Minibots set, released in 2008, it is the first reissue for most of these toys, but not quite all of them.  From left-to-right, these are Bumblebee, Tailgate, Outback, Pipes, and Swerve.

    Other than Bumblebee (the only toy in this set to have been previously reissued, about which more later), all of the toys in this set were originally created in 1986, and were remolds of Minicars released with the very first Transformers in 1984.  Tomy made a few significant changes to these toys from their 1986 versions, making them readily identifiable as reissues.  Most significant among these changes are the painted faces, giving these characters distinct features (especially eyes) that they did not have in the '80s.  A couple of faction symbols have had their old stickers traded out for tampographs, as well.  All in all, these changes are a vast improvement, although I do find myself wishing that they could have removed the stickers altogether.  Note how Swerve's sticker just above his faction symbol is just a bit crooked.  Oh, well.  Can't have everything, I guess....

    Bumblebee is the only figure from this set to have been reissued prior to this set's release.  In fact, this toy has been reissued a couple of times in the past decade alone.  The first reissue was a keychain produced by Fun4All in 2001, which was more or less identical to the original, with the exception of remolding to accommodate the metal chain and slightly different tires.  In 2004, for Transformers Collection, a much more significant change was introduced to the mold, giving Bumblebee a new head intended to more closely resemble the character's animation model.  This new head was retained for the 2008 Encore release.  This version can be distinguished from the 2004 version by the addition of some paint detailing, notably to bring out the vehicle mode lights and fenders.  Ironically, the package art (seen at the top of this entry) still depicts Bumblebee with the head seen on the original toy (seen here to the right).

    Despite being a Japanese product, this set can be purchased fairly inexpensively today.  TFsource sells it for about $30.  That works out to about $6 per toy (before shipping, of course).  When one figures that "Legends"-sized toys (the closest comparable modern size) sell for about $5 if you can find them at a standard toy store (and $9 if you have to go to a place like Rite Aid!), this seems quite reasonable.  If these classic characters interest you at all, I certainly recommend picking them up while you can.

    Wednesday, September 09, 2009

    But What is the Protest About?

    A couple of weeks ago, while walking back to work from lunch, I noticed a couple of protesters outside one of the buildings.  This isn't exactly an uncommon sight on the streets of Pasadena, and I've seen quite a few similar banners over the years.  Usually, I have some idea what the dispute's about, but I have to confess that, this time, I have no clue.

    Nothing on the banner is especially helpful, either.  Although I've blurred out the name of the person on the banner, I did a quick Google search on the name to find out that the person at the center of the dispute is apparently an attorney of long-standing in the area.  Other than "Labor Dispute," however, there is no indication what this attorney is believed to have done wrong.  In fact, I found no obvious connection between the attorney's name and the location where the protesters decided to set up their display.  It might be that the attorney has offices nearby, but they're apparently not explicitly connected with the business the protesters happen to be in front of.  Is it that the attorney is working on a case for this business?  I don't know, and the banner doesn't do anything to clear this question up.  In short, if the protesters are trying to get me to join them in their indignation against this particular attorney, they have utterly failed in their mission.

    I don't want to sound unsympathetic.  I can certainly understand why workers might want to fight for better wages, or better health benefits, or better working conditions.  But unless the folks trying to bring their dispute to public attention, and explicitly trying to "shame" this attorney into action, can give some indication of what the dispute's all about, I can't say whether or not they have any right to complain.  Give me a URL, or something!  By Googling the attorney's name (and also cross-referencing with the word "dispute" and with the term "labor dispute"), I'm confident that I've already done far more to find out what these guys are talking about than the average person will ever do, but I came up with nothing that could pertain to this particular dispute, nor to any pattern of poor treatment others have felt at this attorney's hands.  Indeed, I found a 9.8 point "superb" rating on a 10-point scale on one site.  Now, perhaps that scale measures only practices that the protesters would have considered offensive in the first place, but again, they've given me no window into their concerns, so I only have this praise to go with.

    It has been said that public protest is, perhaps, the most American activity that a citizen that participate in.  There's something about that I really like.  However, I also think that people should do two things before taking part in any protest.  1) Save their anger for only those concerns which most deserve the public display, 2) Clearly communicate what the dispute is about, so as to give people the chance to decide if they want to support them or not.  I can't speak to point #1, but these folks have completely failed at point #2.

    Tuesday, September 08, 2009

    Bloggers Unite: International Literacy Day - Being a Reading Tutor

    While I was still a full-time seminary student, I enjoyed one of the best jobs I've ever had.  I was a reading tutor for (primarily) second and third grade students at a couple of the local elementary schools in the Pasadena area.  For about 10 hours a week, I would go to the classroom, ask for a particular student who was part of the program, and the student and I would read together just out in the hallway.

    The way students were chosen for the program was perhaps not what one would expect.  I wasn't given the students with the greatest difficulty, as it was assumed that the teachers would already be devoting a disproportionate amount of time with those students.  Instead, I was assigned students who were just on the cusp below "average" for the class; children who might "fall through the cracks" because the teacher's attentions might be elsewhere.  The hope was that, by giving these students just that little bit of extra personal attention (averaging about half-an-hour per student per week), they would be able to bring their reading skills up to their grade-appropriate level.

    For the most part, we used pre-prepared materials provided by the program. These were categorized by reading level.  We would go through each book multiple times, until the student was able to read through (or, just as likely, memorize, especially at first) the book on his or her own.  We would then nudge upward to the next level.  By the end of the year, the student would often have successfully worked through all of the material provided by the program, and so I would then improvise.  One of the goals of the program was to encourage students to enjoy reading, and so I considered it completely appropriate to share some Uncle Scrooge comic books during our reading times as a "reward" for doing so well (I used Don Rosa's "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" the most.  Ironically, I actually consider this material to be geared for an even older reading level, but the kids enjoyed it enough, even when I had to help out, that I feel I was doing my job).

    Although I was assigned new students each year for the two-and-a-half years I was involved in the program, I got to know my students pretty well.  Quite a number of them were young boys whose fathers were no longer a part of their lives for whatever reason, and so they benefited from having a male mentor, at least for that short time.  Indeed, I felt a bit guilty when, after ending my full-time status as a seminary student (the tutoring was part of a work-study program, and I was thus no longer eligible to participate) and taking a full-time job at the seminary (thereby making me unavailable even to visit the school during school hours), I was no longer able to check in and see how my young friends were doing. 

    Sadly, it's been about 10 years now since I've had that job.  That means that the students that I worked with should now be entering (or already in) college.  I can only hope that my efforts have helped them to succeed in whatever interests their life has given them.

    Today is International Literacy Day. It has been celebrated on September 8th every year since 1966.  If you want to find out more, and to read reflections on other blogs dedicated to this event, check out this link.

    Monday, September 07, 2009

    Reflections on the Death of the TNIV

    I was more than a little dismayed when I learned last week that the TNIV--my favored translation for some time now--was being discontinued.  I've commented on a few of the other blogs that have discussed this issue already, but consciously wanted to wait a little bit before weighing in on the matter here.

    On one hand, I'm a bit angry.  Even if this decision isn't being made explicitly out of deference to the anti-gender-equality crowd (and, let's be honest, even though gender-oriented language only represents a small fraction of the actual changes in the TNIV when compared to the NIV--less than 30%--this is where most of the controversy has been centered), such a move cannot help but be seen as a victory by these people, and I really don't want to give them the satisfaction.

    I also have an even more selfish reason for being upset.   The timing.  The announcement about the discontinuation of the TNIV came on September 1st (note: it's in the video at about 15:20), the day after I publicly announced my e-book offering a "modern English" version of the 1666 work "Women's Speaking Justified," which uses the TNIV for its Scripture references, a choice I made specifically because (as I state in the introduction) "I find that it speaks most clearly to the modern reader without introducing too many interpretive elements that might serve to draw the reader’s attention away from what the Scripture text itself says."  Articles like the one done at the Christianity Today blog calling the handling of the release of the TNIV a "mistake" (especially the earlier version of the post which was less specific) undermine that assertion (which I still stand by).

    But whether or not a Bible translation is "good" really shouldn't depend on whether the end result (that is, what we read in English) reflects modern attitudes on gender-inclusive language.  Rather, the question should be "does this translation accurately convey the original text to the modern reader?"  If a text really was intended to refer only to males, using language in the translation that makes it appear that the text also referred to females is inaccurate, and thus inappropriate.  On this, there's room for plenty of healthy debate.  A Greek or Hebrew word may well have been male-specific in its original instance, but if the context indicates that it may have been used to refer not just to males specifically, some folks would argue that one should nonetheless retain the "maleness" of the original so as not to make an extra interpretive leap that the English-only readers don't have the resources to know has been made on their behalf.  Others (myself included) would argue for being more inclusive, so as not to send the signal that the original text was "exclusive" when it may not have actually been so.  Anti-gender-inclusive translation scholar Wayne Grudem himself concedes, for example, that "accuracy is improved" by translating the Greek word αδελφοι as "brothers and sisters" (instead of the more literal "brothers") in some instances.1  But I confess that I'm definitely a bit mistrustful when I hear people like Douglas Moo, chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), promise to make "a complete review of every gender-related change that we have made since the publication of the 1984 edition."  Why single that point out, and only that point, if not to signal that the CBT is backpedaling on the gender-inclusive language specifically?  How is this not a signal that the right wing of this debate is controlling the outcome?  But, again, if the original text really doesn't allow for the inclusive interpretation....

    What I'm really against isn't the potential loss of some "gender-inclusive" language (especially if the text doesn't actually warrant it), but against the notion that a translation philosophy that pays attention to the fact that modern language has changed on this matter is somehow invalid.  Many modern English-speakers simply do not read "man" as including both males and females anymore.  A translation that recognizes this fact should not be condemned simply for doing so.

    But, at the end of the day, one item should be made more clear than, perhaps, has been thus far.  Although the designation "Today's New International Version" (TNIV) is no longer going to be used, the work of the translation is not being abandoned altogether.  Rather, the CBT is simply reversing its decision to leave the NIV (not updated since 1984) and the TNIV as separate branches, and are bringing those lines back together into a "new" NIV (currently referred to as NIV 2011). It's worth noting that most translations, including the NIV and TNIV, have been updated since their original release.  This can be quickly demonstrated even without pointing to each individual change simply by observing copyright notices.  The NIV, for example, lists "1973, 1978, 1984" noting that incremental changes were made each of those years.  These did not necesitate a new "other than NIV" designation.  Also, indications are that the NIV 2011 itself will actually be referred to simply as "NIV" when it is actually published.  Perhaps this will ultimately be a way to introduce "gender-accurate" language (where it is warranted!) without the controversy that the TNIV had.  If so, this will actually be a good thing.

    1Wayne Grudem, What's Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations? Copyright 1997 by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. p. 18.

    Friday, September 04, 2009

    Weekly Transformers Feature: Animated Wreck-Gar

    Ever since the 21st century began (if not earlier), Transformers fans have pretty much expected that each new Transformers franchise would contain homages to the Generation One era of the 1980s.  The Animated franchise was certainly no exception.  Indeed, it has been argued that Animated has been the most "G1-like" franchise in Transformers history (with the exception, of course, of G1 itself).  Yet, for all the homages, Animated remains very distinctly its own entity.

    Animated Wreck-Gar is an homage to a character that first appeared in 1986's Transformers: The Movie (the cartoon one, not the Michael Bay explodo-fests of recent years).  G1 Wreck-Gar was the leader of a group of robots who lived on a planet made out of junk and transformed into motorcycles of various types.  These robots called themselves--wait for it--"Junkions" (yeah, real creative, I know).  G1 Wreck-Gar, voiced in the movie by Monty Python member Eric Idle (later by Tony Pope in Season 3 of the cartoon) spoke almost entirely in catch phrases from Earthen television broadcasts (leading to lines like "Yes friends, act now, destroy Unicron. Kill the Grand Poobah. Eliminate even the toughest stains!").  Why a 21st century alien robot would be so fixated on television shows from mid-to-late 20th century Earth is never explained, but it certainly did make for an intriguing character.

    Anyway, this entry isn't about G1 Wreck-Gar, but about the Animated version.  Instead of hailing from a planet of junk, Animated Wreck-Gar was created when an All Spark fragment fell into a pile of junk and gave it life.  Appropriately enough, this "pile of junk" robot transformed into a garbage truck.  Personally, I find the idea of a garbage truck Transformer as both novel and completely appropriate for a Wreck-Gar homage.  I get a bit annoyed when people insist that if anyone else has a problem with a franchise, it's because that franchise isn't "the same" as G1.  Change is fine.  A garbage truck Wreck-Gar is change (remember, G1 Wreck-Gar was a motorcycle).  But the essence of the character is homaged very nicely while giving the writers an interesting idea to play with.  And, indeed, a lot of homages don't work especially well.  The quality of the idea is what matters the most.  If the idea is terrible, then why shouldn't we say so?  This idea, thankfully, is tremendously cool.

    The writers of Animated also changed Wreck-Gar's personality significantly from the G1 version.  Although Animated Wreck-Gar's head is made out of a television set, it's not so much that this Wreck-Gar is obsessed with television as he's just very, very impressionable.  This Wreck-Gar is as likely to repeat anything you tell him as he is a television commercial, per se.  This leads to some sticky situations when the extremely naive Wreck-Gar ends up helping villains such as the Angry Archer and even sides with the Decepticon Lugnut for a time.

    Animated Wreck-Gar homages the G1 character in at least one more way.  When Eric Idle wasn't available to voice the new incarnation of the character (apparently beause he was out producing Spamalot.  Great play, by the way!), the writers remembered that the song that played during G1 Wreck-Gar's opening scene in the 1986 movie was a song called "Dare to Be Stupid" by Weird Al Yankovic.  Weird Al was contracted to provide the voice for the Animated version of Wreck-Gar, and proved an excellent fit (he must have especially loved saying the line "I am Wreck-Gar! I dare to be stupid!").  When it was announced that Weird Al would be a guest at BotCon 2009, I specifically picked up this toy for the express purpose of having Weird Al autograph it.  After a rather long line, I'm proud to say that I was able to achieve that goal.

    Wednesday, September 02, 2009

    Thoughts on the Fires Near Los Angeles

    Less than two weeks ago, I took a couple of days of vacation time so that my wife and I could get some much needed rest.  As part of that effort, we took a drive up into the Los Angeles National Forest north of Azusa.  While there, we enjoyed the scenery, and stopped to look at Morris Dam.  My wife commented on how dry all the brush was.

    About three days later, we received word of a forest fire in that area.

    As of the time I'm writing this, that fire is now 95% contained.  But another fire, now commonly referred to as "the Station Fire," started about a day or two after that one, and is still raging out of control.  While my wife and I were driving back home on Sunday from an anniversary dinner at Disneyland's Blue Bayou, we could see the flames poking out of the darkness.  In the dozen years I've lived in Southern California, I've seen quite a few wildfires happen in the nearby mountains, but none have ever been so close as these, let alone so large.  It's quite eerie.

    Outside of having to deal with all the smoke in the air, my wife and I are in no real danger, but we do have a number of friends and colleagues in the suburbs at the southern edge of the fire.  Over at Google Maps, you can see a current map of the flames, with highlights of what's happening.  Prayers are appreciated.


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