Friday, July 31, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Super Counter Arrow

As I mentioned when discussing Go-Bot Bumblebee, Hasbro released a number of small toys created to scale with Hot Wheels-style cars and racetracks during the tail end of the Generation Two line in 1995. As Bumblebee itself attests, Hasbro was determined even then to get the most out of these molds by releasing them in new color schemes as other characters. But that's only the beginning of the story for these molds!

When the Japanese company that handles Transformers, Takara, decided to create the Car Robots line in 2000, they took the opportunity to re-use a number of old molds, such as the Go-Bot molds. These toys were then re-used in America as part of the (nearly) all-repaint Robots in Disguise line in 2001. The Indy racer Go-Bot, originally called Double Clutch and then repainted into a new version of Mirage in Generation Two, was called "Counter Arrow" in the Japanese Car Robots line, but Hasbro took the opportunity to re-lay claim to one of their old Generation One trademarks by calling the mold Mirage again for Robots in Disguise. This particular toy, however, was never released in the United States, and thus is not Mirage. But neither is it just "Counter Arrow." Let me explain.... The Car Robots/Robots in Disguise fiction started what has since become a trend in other Transformers franchises. Whereas it used to be that a recolored toy almost invariably represented a different character, Car Robots suggested that certain recolors represented a "powered up" version of the same character as the original color scheme. Although this was never demonstrated with the Counter Arrow/Mirage character in the cartoon, this was clearly the intention with the Japanese exclusive set of recolors that included this red version of the Indy racer mold, as each toy in this series was called "Super (insert the Japanese character's name here)." Hence, this toy is "Super Counter Arrow."

This toy wasn't actually released during the course of the main run of the Car Robots line, either, but actually came out a couple of years later, in 2003. Both Hasbro and Takara found that the "Spychangers" (as the Go-Bot molds were now commonly called) made for excellent recolor fodder. Hasbro released several clear and/or differently-colored versions of these molds mostly as exclusives through KB toy stores, and Takara released several entirely different clear and/or differently-colored versions of these same molds on their own. Each one of the ten (or more, depending on how you count them) distinct "Spychanger" molds were eventually released in multiple color schemes across various lines by the time the toy companies finally stopped.

Perhaps the molds were finally destroyed from so much use. But who knows? These smaller toys may well have been able to take more abuse than some of the larger ones (we've been definitively told that larger molds created specifically for the Car Robots era have since been used beyond capacity), and if Hasbro has proven anything, it's that they're more than happy to milk a few more recolors out of an existing mold if they think the new colors will sell. And there are always plenty of Hot Wheels-style racetracks out there....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

California's Budget: A No-Win Scenario

Well, after what seems like an eternity, the state of California has finally passed its budget for the coming year. Faced with record-setting shortfalls, this was a very long, bitter fight, with no clear winner.

Although those who fought to keep the income tax from going up (even for those who could most afford it) could argue to have "won," the sales tax is already more 1.5% higher now than it was a year ago (to be fair, we the people voted for 0.5% of that ourselves, hoping to get better public transportation out of the deal). Besides, most of the constituents most concerned about not letting taxes go up are angry about the fact that the state government will be raiding huge amounts of money from more local (i.e., county and city) funds, thereby forcing local leaders to decide whether or not to raise taxes or further cut programs. And there's the question of how much of the budget isn't actually "real" spending being reduced, but simply creating accounting that makes it look like we're more balanced than we are. And, of course, Gov. Schwarzenegger used the power of the line-item veto to cut an additional $500 million out of the budget beyond what the lawmakers had agreed to after their own endless battles, which naturally hasn't made much of anybody happy.

Now, I'm no economist, but I have a sense that some our lawmakers don't know what they've actually done. For example, the Governor, in an attempt to sound a sympathetic note, said "I know that college students will pay now higher tuitions." Well, yes, but how many students will now not even go to college at all? That's bound to have further negative repercussions on the economy, isn't it? Likewise, the number of criminals who will be released early from prisons, many of which will almost certainly commit crimes that will just cause them to be sent back, can't be "economy-neutral" even in the relatively short-run. Funds for aiding the poor have been slashed, but has any attention been given to the fact that, if more poor people are not given the tools they need to enter the ranks of production, that too will have a further negative impact on the economic status of the state as a whole?

But, let's be honest, even if these concerns were addressed, there was never going to be a way to close this monstrous budget gap without causing a lot of pain. This was a no-win scenario in just about every definition. I can only hope that we didn't cause ourselves even more difficulty in trying to do what needed to be done to fix the problems.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Finding Sacred Space Near the Fire Station

While at yesterday's worship gathering, in the middle of a time of confessional prayer, the silence was interrupted by the sounds of a siren just outside our church building. This is a fairly common occurrence for us on Sunday morning, and we've long since learned to accept these interruptions. Similar sounds have broken through our worship times in other churches I've attended, too, so it's not like my current congregation is alone in this regard, despite its proximity to the fire station just across the street.

There is a sense in which I wish that I didn't have to hear the sirens. It's not that I don't want the emergency crews to do their important work, so much as I wish it were somehow possible to sound proof the walls of the sanctuary so that the sounds of the sirens couldn't penetrate my "sacred space." I'm fully aware that this would be impractical, not to mention potentially dangerous (what if the fire was actually in the next building, and we needed to evacuate? Those extra seconds of warning could be important!), but I'd be lying if I didn't admit to wanting silence in those times.

Christians talk a lot about being "in the world, but not of the world," and although they usually aren't talking about things like sirens heard during times of worship, there's something about that cliché that works in this context, too. We want our worship times to be a time "set apart" from the rest of the week. We want to focus on God in a way that (admittedly, if not ideally) we haven't done at other times. We expect our sanctuaries to be... well, sanctuaries--sacred places. Places of refuge. Hearing sirens during a weekly worship gathering reminds us that, in a very real sense, a church sanctuary isn't any different from any other building set in a particular area. Events that impact that locale will, of necessity, impact the church building as well.

We need these reminders. Although it is good to set aside time during the week to gather together in worship, and to create sacred space for that purpose, we need to be reminded that the rest of the world is still out there. It doesn't magically disappear just because we've gathered for a particular purpose. And, indeed, what good is that purpose if it doesn't encourage us to return to "the rest of world" after our gathering time is completed, so that we may continue our worship through acts of service to the communities around us?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Topspin

When the idea of transforming robots began to become popular in the early 1980's, it didn't take long for the toy designers to experiment with the concept of self-transforming toys. The Jumpstarters were released in 1985, part of the second year of the original Transformers line in the United States, but their origins go back a year or so earlier, to the Diaclone line in Japan, where these molds were released under the name "Baku-Ten Attack Robo." As best as I can tell, "Baku-ten" translates into "Blast Flip," which is an accurate enough description of how these toys work.

But first, the part you have to do yourself. As the first Transformers-related toys to be designed to change form on their own, it's no surprise that these toys are very simple. Topspin is featured here, but Twin Twist features exactly the same design and transformation. Fold the toy in half to create something that's basically a vehicle because the instruction booklet tells you that it is. That's all there is to it! Fold in half, and you're done.

Well, obviously that's not the big selling point of the toy. The big deal is that this thing's supposed to change forms on its own, right? To achieve this, pull back on the vehicle to trigger the spring-loaded wheels underneath, and let it go. The toy will roll forward on the floor until a catch (seen here on the toy's chest) is released, causing the legs to swing forward. Ideally, the legs should hit the ground with enough momentum to cause the robot to stand up and stay there in robot form, ready for battle. Well... almost. You do have to add the weapon yourself, of course.

Of course, all that assumes that everything works the way it's supposed to. Unfortunately, as often as not, the toy falls flat on its face rather than stand up like it should. Also, kids often had a tendency to try to change the toy back into robot mode without letting the wheels release that catch, causing the catch to be broken on many specimens. For this reason, Jumpstarters are easily mocked as Transformers toys. However, I really do think that any Transformers fan who appreciates the Generation One era ought to have at least one of these toys. There's the historical aspect, of course, being the first self-converting toys in the line. They're also incredibly cheap to get a hold of, because Hasbro apparently made a lot of them, and these toys aren't ones that most people have been holding on to all that tightly (just take a look on eBay, where Jumpstarters can be found for less than $10, even after shipping has been added. If you do get one, might I suggest signing up for Big Crumbs before you do? You'll get a percentage of such online purchases back.). If nothing else, I think they just are good for a laugh, since even if watching the toy fall over doesn't amuse you, watching your cat chase after it is bound to be fun!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On President Carter's Decision to Leave the Southern Baptists

Back when I was in college, and was still under the care of the Presbytery of Louisville (now called "Mid-Kentucky Presbytery"), I had a generally supportive group of liaisons and other members of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Because I didn't actually live in Kentucky for most of that time (I was already a student at Montreat College when I started), we had to make special arrangements to make sure that I was getting all the care and training that I needed in the Presbyterian tradition — specifically, the PC(USA). I used to joke that their main fear was that I was a closet Southern Baptist.

For those that know me today, that statement needs unpacking. Although Montreat College is affiliated with the PC(USA), it is very much in the "south," and I always had the impression that there were more students there who were Baptists than those of us who were Presbyterian. Although we had some significant disagreements on several issues, I came to view my friends with respect, and I did, in fact, attend worship at Southern Baptist churches on quite a few occasions.

One of those areas of disagreement — and hopefully of a good amount of reasoned discussion — was the area of women in ministry. Although I confess that I wasn't then as solid in my affirmation of the right of women to all areas of church service as I am today, I grew up accepting that women were able to become elders and pastors. No doubt many of my college friends think that, if I wasn't at least mildly disobeying God for my acceptance of women in ministry then, I'm definitely in full-blown rebellion now. This recognition saddens me deeply, but I remain convinced that the Bible doesn't mean what they think it means when it comes to God's opinion on the matter.

One line of argument that I almost always find irritating is when one side accuses the other of being more influenced by modern secular culture than by the Bible. For one thing, I feel that this attitude assumes a naive attitude about Biblical interpretation, as if it were possible to understand the Bible completely separate from the cultures in which is was written and in which it is read today. For another, it seems to assume that, if we were really serious about seeking God's will, we would all come to the same conclusions about what the Bible means for our lives, and for the lives of our churches.

Through a Facebook friend, I learned a couple of days ago about former President Jimmy Carter's recent decision to cut ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. Carter made the decision to leave the denomination he has been a member of for "over six decades" primarily because of their continued stance on the subservience of women. It's not like this stance is anything new, and Carter's position against this teaching has been known for quite some time. Indeed, Carter has increasingly distanced himself from the denomination for years now, although retaining a few ties. I take it that he has simply come to a place where, having tried to remain a voice of opposition from within the Southern Baptists for so long, he has come to a point where he feels that he can do more by leaving and making it clear why.

In his statement, Carter does discuss the fact that the Bible can be used to defend equality for women just as readily as it has been used by some to argue against it, but it is clear enough that the bulk of his argument comes from instances of discrimination throughout history around the world. I can already hear my conservative friends argue that Carter is allowing "the world" to influence his understanding of the Bible. To that, I can only say, "Yes. He is. And good for him!"

As important as biblical primacy is, this is simply one of those areas where we have to accept that neither side is ever going to win any arguments on the basis of the biblical witness alone. David Scholer always used to open his class on women and the Bible by noting that "starting points" are very important. Accepting the exegetical principle that "clear texts illuminate unclear texts," some people start by suggesting that some texts are "clear" that other people suggest need context to be properly understood. We can go back and forth on that, and never get anywhere, no matter how honest our intentions to follow God.

So, when President Carter appeals to the ways in which religious arguments have been used throughout history to subjugate women, in an attempt to demonstrate how evil such a use is, I say "Thank you!" The Bible has at least as much to say, if not many times more, about God's desire to help those who are downtrodden. When we look at the ways in which people have been abused, specifically in the name of God, I have no doubt that God weeps bitterly. I want to say "Thank you" to Jimmy Carter. I know that this decision has been a painful one for you, Mr. President. I hope that people's eyes and ears are opened by it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

40th Anniversary of First Moon Landing

Today is the 40th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, the first time in history that such a landing, with a human crew, was achieved. I wasn't yet born at the time, and I expect that the same can be said for most of my readers. I've grown up knowing that the landing had taken place through textbooks, and from accounts of family members who had watched the news coverage of the event at the time, but I have no direct understanding of the technical quantum leaps that must have taken place to make such an event possible.

When President John F. Kennedy famously committed to have an American on the moon "before this decade is out" in 1961, it was in the middle of the "Cold War," and the Soviet Union, having successfully put Yuri Gagarin in orbit about a month-and-a-half previously, was "beating" the United States in the "Space Race." The U.S. had put Alan Shepard into orbit just earlier that same month, but Kennedy was pushing for America to go from just having one of its citizens in space at all to a full-fledged human moonwalk in less than nine years! I find this concept mind-boggling. Surely this was asking for more than could be accomplished. These days, we rather expect politicians to promise things that cannot be delivered upon, and although we are often disappointed, we are hardly surprised by these failed promises anymore. Yet, in the case of the moon landing, we actually did it!

Amazingly, the Apollo program (and thus, every one of the manned moon landings to date) was completed just over three years later. The most recent moonwalk was Apollo 17 in December 1972. I wasn't born until 1974, and so I've lived my whole life with the idea of walking on the moon as something that has been accomplished, yet with the entirety of that accomplishment firmly in the past. It's not like the space program hasn't done anything in the years since. Indeed, we owe so much of the technology that we take for granted today, from cell phones to Velcro, to the continuing success of the space program. Still, I feel that our generation may have lost a bit of the sense of wonder that my parents' generation had at being able to witness the exploration of another world. NASA's working on that, with another moon mission tentatively scheduled, but even that's not until 2019. And, of course, the intention is indeed to move to Mars and beyond from there.

Of course, there's still some time for the "older generation" to share some of what it was like to live in those days. I find it remarkable that, 40 years later, all three of the astronauts that took part in the Apollo 11 mission (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins) are still alive. Since all three are now in their late 70s, I rather doubt that all three will make it to the 50th anniversary, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Either way, I'm glad that they, and others who remember the "Space Race," are still around to share their memories of that time with us.

All images used in this blog entry are from the Apollo 11 mission, and were taken by NASA. NASA images are not copyrighted.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Cosmos (Generation One AND Universe)

This coming Monday is the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. I'll have more to say about that on Monday, but for this week's Transformers feature, I thought it would be appropriate to focus on one of the more explicitly space-oriented characters. Having settled on Cosmos, the question then became "which Cosmos toy should I feature?" I finally decided that neither toy is especially complicated, so why not do both? Generation One Cosmos is represented by the images on the left, while Universe Cosmos is featured in the images on the right. As always, you can get a larger view by clicking on each individual image.

The original Cosmos was part of the same series of Mini Vehicles that gave us Seaspray in 1985. He transforms into a fairly stereotypical (if green) flying saucer. His Tech Specs indicate that Cosmos was primarily used as a communications satellite, and that he would have to remain in Earth orbit for long periods at a time, contributing to deep feelings of loneliness. I really don't remember that the old cartoon (nor the comics, really, but Cosmos didn't really show up much there) ever indicated either Cosmos' communications function nor his loneliness all that much. He certainly wasn't depicted as just "being in orbit all the time" like Robots in Disguise Movor was (I considered doing Movor this week, too, but didn't want to distract from the space-focus by having to deal with the other Ruination team figures, and Movor's pretty boring on his own). For the 2009 Universe updated version, Cosmos' flying saucer mode gets a tail fin in back (replacing the thrusters that you really can't see anyway in the picture on the left) and some strange alien lettering that we're told spells Cosmos' name in Cybertronian, but unlike Banzai-Tron, the lettering used here doesn't actually resemble any pre-existing Cybertronian alphabet yet designed.

Like most of the other 1985 Mini Vehicles, G1 Cosmos has a robot mode that kinda-sorta looks like he's got two legs, but really ends in a single "unifoot." The placement of the heat-sensitive rubsign only serves to highlight the fact that Cosmos's feet are forever bound together. Universe Cosmos corrects this issue by giving the toy two distinct feet, which are actually quite poseable, in theory, but it achieves this poseability by using ball-and-socket joints that are among the loosest I've ever seen on a Transformers toy. I have yet to successfully transform this toy without a leg (and often an arm, as well) popping off. I'm also not particularly thrilled by Universe Cosmos' arms, since the fists are eternally locked inside the casing, making them rather useless. G1 Cosmos may have had to do with eternally-straight thruster-fingers, but I find them quite a bit more believable that the new look, which reminds me of a person wearing a long-sleeved sweater that's really too long for their arms. Still, one has to respect the attempt, not to mention the apparent difficulty of getting us an updated Cosmos toy at all! (There was a previous attempt that didn't make it past the prototype stage) Good luck finding this toy, though. I've only seen it for sale once, myself, and that was at a Rite Aid that charged an exhorbitant $8.99 for toys of this size (roughly twice what I'd have paid if I could have found it at a Toys R Us or a Target). Even the dealers at BotCon didn't have the toys of this wave (except for one, and I don't recall seeing Cosmos even at that one). If dealers can't find a toy, you know they haven't been distributed very well!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Impartial Justices and Compassionate Vision

Back during the last wave of Supreme Court nominees (has it actually been more than three years since then?), I wrote a number of entries discussing the extent to which true "impartiality" is even possible. This time around, there is a sense in which "the shoe is on the other foot," as we have a nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by a Democratic president, but a lot of the same issues started coming up pretty much as soon as Sotomayor's name was announced.

Of course, a good bit of the controversy has come up from her "wise Latina" remarks, but I expect that this would have been the case regardless. I don't really want to try to defend her remarks themselves too much (her actual judicial record seems to do that adequately enough, especially in regard to the issue of whether or not she demonstrates bias), but I am dismayed at how much the words "empathy" and "compassion" are being used in this debate as though they are bad things.

One thing I've learned over the past few years of living in Southern California, both from people of other races and from women who care about equality issues, is that people who are actually members of a given minority are more likely to notice when an injustice is being committed against their group than a white male is (incidentally, just to comment on a bit of dialogue from the confirmation hearings, I don't mean "choose to see." I mean "see."). All too often, I've seen complaints made by such minorities written off as being "too sensitive," and not properly taken seriously. I'm not trying to argue that either these minorities or the white males in question aren't biased in some way. I've long maintained that it's impossible to be totally bias-free. Nor do I believe that every time a minority cries "racism" or "sexism" that racism or sexism is actually taking place. But I have come to take those concerns far more seriously, and to give the cases in which those concerns are raised a closer look.

That's what I expect out of a Supreme Court Justice. I expect them to take a very close look at whatever cases are presented before them. I do expect them to try, insofar as they are able, to lay whatever prejudices they have aside. I simply feel that there is a case to be made that a "wise Latina" may well be able to see things that another person may miss on first glance, and that if she is able to bring these issues to the attention of others, then there is a greater opportunity to give those issues close scrutiny that might well be missed if the "wise Latina" isn't present. That's not to say that I think we need to start setting "quotas" for having minorities on the Supreme Court, or necessarily in any other particular place. But it is to say that there is value to be had because a person represents a different group, and that it is unfair to dismiss this value, much less to turn it into a negative.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Crystal Cathedral Nepotism Continues

More than half a year ago, I commented on the unceremonious dumping of Robert A. Schuller (son of Crystal Cathedral founding pastor Robert H. Schuller) as the preacher on the "Hour of Power" television program. Robert A. was not technically removed as head pastor of the Crystal Cathedral at that time, but since the "Hour of Power" program is just the edited broadcast of the regular worship gatherings there, it's no surprise that he resigned from that position by the end of the year. The July 14, 2009 edition of Christian Century reports that the elder Schuller has now turned over "the administrative duties" of the Crystal Cathedral ministry to his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman.

While I am certainly glad to see a woman given such authority in such a stereotypically patriarchal environment, it's pretty much impossible for me to believe that no non-family member could have been found who was more qualified. I'm reminded of a comment a friend made on this blog back when Robert A. was named the new pastor in the first place suggesting that such nepotism was questionable, and here we see it all over again.

Although the article does indicate that officials of the Reformed Church of America (the denomination to which the Crystal Cathedral belongs) supported the elder Schuller in the ouster of the younger, I'm guessing that it wasn't because they had an issue with nepotism (frankly, I'd like to know what the reason for their support was). In any event, the continued use of Robert H.'s children as Crystal Cathedral leadership makes me wonder what Schuller family reunions look like.

I'm also quick to note that Ms. Coleman hasn't been named the new senior pastor, although she will "be preaching occasionally," and I'm curious as to what's up with that, as we're also told that the current interim senior pastor (who seems to be oddly not family-connected) "will continue at the church as a teaching pastor," implying that the interim's days as "senior pastor" are numbered. Maybe I'm just the suspicious type when it comes to issues of women in ministry, but this sounds a lot to me like they'll stop using the "senior pastor" title altogether, rather than give it to a woman. I hope that I'm wrong about that.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Seaspray

When I started college in 1992, the Transformers toy line had been "dead" for nearly two years. I knew nothing, as of yet, about the fact that Generation Two would be hitting the shelves in just a few short months. So far as I knew, the very concept of "Transformers" only continued to exist in the minds of fans like me ("It never ends!" as Simon Furman infamously said at the end of the letter column of the Marvel comic book). I was therefore extremely surprised to find Seaspray sitting on the pegs of a local Woolworth's while in Asheville that Fall. Needless to say, I snatched the toy up immediately!

Finding Seaspray at a retail (not second-hand) store in 1992 was doubly surprising, since Seaspray was released as part of the second wave of Mini Vehicles in 1985. By all rights, this toy should have been bought years before! It's almost as though the toy was just waiting for me to find it.

I've said a number of times before how scale is a bit inconsistent with Transformers toys most of the time. If you look closely at the vehicle mode here, you'll notice a door in the very back of the white portion. If that door is considered large enough to fit a human being, and if Seaspray is supposed to transform without any size-changing involved, he'd have to rival Omega Surpreme in height! As it is, he's pretty consistently depicted as being one of the shorter Autobots.

Although the 1985 Mini Vehicles are a welcome departure from just being "car" modes, most of them (all except for Beachcomber) have one "deficiency" in common. None of them have separate feet in robot mode! The robot mode more or less looks humanoid, as if two separate legs are present, and this is borne out by the package art (as seen above), but the feet are eternally fused together in a single piece of plastic. Ah, well, this is before posability was considered quite as important as it is today, and I really can't complain.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

John Calvin at 500

Friday is the 500th Anniversary of John Calvin's birth. Although I am a card-carrying Presbyterian, I'm not such a staunch Calvinist that I'm going to bump my weekly Transformers feature just to make sure that I recognize Calvin's birthday on July 10th, so I have two choices: 1) Do 2 features on Friday, or 2) recognize the birthday a couple of days early.

You can already tell which alternative I've chosen. :)

There is a sense in which Calvin is the guy that Presbyterians (indeed, anyone in the Reformed tradition, which encompasses a number of other Protestant denominations) view as the founder of their branch of theology. Even if Calvin didn't originate a particular doctrine himself (his work owes a great debt to Augustine, in particular), it is often Calvin's particular take on it (often encapsulated in the acronym, "TULIP", which stands for "Total Depravity," "Unconditional Election," "Limited Atonement," "Irresistible Grace," and "Perseverance of the Saints") that Presbyterians look to for authority.

At least, so it is often assumed, both by Presbyterians themselves as well as those outside of the Reformed tradition. In reality, it's generally not so clear-cut. Presbyterians, for example, often either don't know the tenets of "TULIP" (and I don't really blame them, as the acronym's letters each come from the adjective describing the doctrine, and opposed to the core word of the doctrine itself. Knowing "Total, Unconditional, Limited, Irresistible, and Perseverance" doesn't tell you as much as knowing what or who those adjectives refer to, even if you know those things, but don't know the adjectives.) or actively argue against some element of one of TULIP's "petals" (even a Presbyterian pastor might argue against how "limited" the atonement is, for example). Of course, the formulation "TULIP" itself was created in response to Arminian thought by some of Calvin's followers well after Calvin's death, but it nonetheless is considered to be a reliable short-form of Calvin's teachings. In any event, even fewer Presbyterians have an understanding of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, which detail his thoughts far more thoroughly, than they do of TULIP.

But even if Calvin's teachings are not universally agreed to (and I myself am pretty conflicted on that count), there is a sense in which he left a legacy to which not only Presbyterians are indebted, but indeed the United States and other western democracies in the secular world, as well. For one thing, our representative form of government--in particular, the system of checks and balances inherent therein--is an outgrowth of Calvin's teachings on human fallibility. Of course, Calvin's insistence upon reason and academic study is of great importance to those of us who also try to find an intersection between matters of faith and secular understanding. Montreat Conference Center is hosting a conference, starting today, celebrating Calvin's 500th birthday, specifically calling it "an opportunity to rediscover Calvin’s significant and sometimes misunderstood legacy." One of the professors I work for, Dr. John L. Thompson, will be giving a lecture as part of the conference tomorrow: "Psalms of Cursing and Lament as a Prism for Calvin's Use of Scripture." It's his first trip to Montreat. Wish I could join him.

UPDATE: July 15, 2009. This week's episode of The God Complex featured a discussion of John Calvin's legacy. They were nice enough to give me a shout-out at the end as "Intern of the Week," which means nothing more than that I gave them a theme concept for how they would read the names of the people involved in putting the show together at the end of the podcast. I'd invite you to have a listen, particularly for those credits at the end. Can you guess what theme I gave them? I'll bet you can! ;)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Fourth of July with Family

This past weekend, I took a quick trip up to Placerville to visit family. My parents, who live in Kentucky, are up there visiting their parents, siblings, and other extended family who mostly all still live in the area (or, in some cases, have returned having once moved away). I've been needing to visit my Placerville family for a while anyway, but whenever my parents are expected to be up there, too, I tend to make a special effort. So even though it was a quick trip (at least I got Friday off of work, or even that might not have been possible!), I drove the 400-odd miles from the Pasadena area to Northern California for the holiday weekend.

Since we were up there for the Fourth of July weekend, one of the main items on the agenda was to go to Carson City, Nevada and the Nevada State Railroad Museum. It has been tradition for the NSRM to steam up the Inyo, which at 134 years old is one of the oldest steam locomotives still operating, although "operating" is perhaps used loosely here, since they only steam it up once a year, and it never carries any freight. But the fact that it still can run under its own power is the important thing. My dad is a steam locomotive fan par excellence, and we've taken more trips to more railroad museums than I can count over the course of my life. The NSRM is one of the "special" ones. While I wouldn't consider myself an expert on this kind of thing (my knowledge certainly pales when compared with his), I probably know far more about this kind of thing than most people. Ask me about the significance of the date, May 10, 1869, sometime (and how this engine connects with that date, despite not yet having been built!).

Of course, I was really there to visit with family, and one great way to do that on the Fourth of July is to watch the fireworks. A whole bunch of us found a piece of grass at one of the Placerville-area parking lots from which to watch the show, which lasted about 15 minutes. But before the show could start, we spent a few hours waiting and enjoying each other's company. Here's a shot of one of my cousins playing bubbles with her sons (the other one's out of shot at the moment, but he's running back and forth trying to pop them!).

It was definitely a far quicker trip than I would have liked, especially for such a long drive, but I'm glad I took it. I enjoyed spending time with everyone, and took far more pictures than I can comfortably share here (you can see an album here). Also, I'm increasingly aware that, especially in regard to my grandparents (on both sides, although only one is represented here), each time I see them could be my last. I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Energon Arcee

As I mentioned back when I reviewed BotCon Elita-1, "female Autobots" are a bit of a rarity. Of course, being robots, the very concept of Transformers as even having gender is a bit of an oddity, but whether it makes sense or not, most continuities suggest that there are male Transformers and female Transformers, with female ones being quite rare (there are female Decepticons, but they're even more rare!). Perhaps the most prominent female Autobot in Generation One was Arcee. But, to this day, G1 Arcee has still never been given a mainstream transforming toy (there was an exclusive made for BotCon 2001, although quite frankly this toy bears little resemblance to the character she's supposed to represent). In fact, if you only count mainstream retail releases, it took even longer for Hasbro to make any transforming Arcee toy than it did for them to make a Unicron!

The first transformable Arcee available at retail was made for the Energon line in 2004. Arcee turns into a motorcycle, a mode that has since been used for other Arcee toys, and it seems that these toys get repainted to represent other "female" characters quite a bit. In fact, including the BotCon 2005 toys, this particular mold has been reused no fewer than six more times! I'm not at all clear on why a motorcycle is particularly "feminine," but there you go.

Although Energon Arcee is not actually intended to be the same character as Generation One Arcee, the homage is clear enough. Both Arcees have a predominately pink color scheme, and clearly "feminine" curves, including an... *ahem* enhanced chest. Energon Arcee has some of the wimpiest hands I've ever seen on a Transformer (at least, among those that actually have dedicated hands). They almost seem put on there as an afterthought, and aren't really any good for much anything. All in all, this toy is most definitely not what I would consider a movement toward gender equality.

Energon Arcee is a member (in at least some accounts, the leader, perhaps to offset that gender inequity problem) of a subgroup called the "Omnicons." Unlike Generation One, where a "-cons" suffix was a clear indication of being allied with the Decepticons, "Omnicons" are Autobots (there were rumors before Energon started up of this group being called "Omnibots" — no clear relation to these guys — but that name apparently didn't clear legal). "Omnicons" were intended to be unique among Autobots for their ability to work with and shape Energon into tools and weapons. The transparent red star and other similarly colored parts with Arcee are intended to represent such Energon. The stars (called "Energon Chips") could be attached to other Energon Transformers to represent being given a power-up, which the other parts could be rearranged in various ways. Arcee's Energon parts are intended to form a kind of crossbow, but the design of the figure is such that the only way Arcee can actually hold it is to hold it way out to the side and take a wide stance with her legs. Even then, she's rather liable to falling over, so I feel fortunate that this shot turned out so well!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Missing Montreat

Montreat's been on my mind quite a bit this past month or so. Sadly, I won't be able to head out there for the Youth Conferences this year as I did last year. Although finances are certainly tight in the current economy, that's not really the reason I can't go this year--at least, not directly. If you serve as a Small Group Leader, Montreat pays for your flight, room, and meals for the entire time you're there. In fact, going last year probably helped my budget for the summer! However, Fuller is in the midst of a significant restructuring effort, and although I won't be losing my job in the midst of it, things are going to be changing fairly quickly, and it's just not a good time to not be here.

But my sister, who still lives in Kentucky, was able to be a Small Group Leader this year, and so I got a lot of updates from her. It was an especially appropriate time for her to be there. 2009 is the 20th anniversary of her first conference, much as last year was the 20th anniversary of mine. Her "anniversary" experience was even more so, however, as the preacher for the two weeks she served was Tom Are, Jr., who gave the sermons back in 1989 (transcribed via the links on the right-side bar)! I'm told that he shared a few of the same stories (after all, the youth of this audience wasn't even alive to have heard them back then!) and a few new ones (I eagerly await the CD my sister has promised me). She even got to sing a song leading the congregation in worship during her time there (that's her in the middle, with Rev. Are on the right, and one of the music leaders on the left. Archbishop Tutu wasn't there. It's just his smiling picture in the back.).

This weekend, Montreat will no doubt have their annual Fourth of July parade, which I still remember watching when I was there with the 1992 Planning Team, and I'm hearing word from many of my Facebook friends (many of whom were fellow Small Group Leaders last year) that they're getting reading to head out there for their Youth Conference experiences (there are six such conferences every year. My sister was at the first two, but there are still four to go!). Have fun! Wish I could be with you all!

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