Friday, October 30, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Classics Grimlock

On a couple of occasions this week, I've called Grimlock a "glory hog."  Although the Dinobots as a team have always been popular (with new homage teams popping up periodically within Transformers history), Grimlock's the only individual character to have gotten consistent attention.  After the original release, there's been a Grimlock Pretender, an Action Master (to be fair, Snarl was an Action Master, too), a Beast Wars toy (arguably the only one to actually be clearly stated as being the same character as the Generation One character sharing the name) an Alternator, a "War Within" Titanium, a Masterpiece toy, and still others.  Given the fact that Grimlock has historically been so popular, it's no surprise that he was one of the characters featured in the 2006 Classics line.

One modern criticism of the original Grimlock toy is that, due to previously common understandings of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, that toy depicts a T-Rex that drags his tail as he walks.  We now know that this depiction is not accurate.  Classics Grimlock fixes that problem handily, and clearly depicts a dinosaur who can run with his tail held high!  Of course, the bayonet blaster on his back probably isn't quite historically accurate....

I've come to the opinion that, for most Grimlock toys, the robot mode is an afterthought.  Whereas for most Transformers toys, I display them in robot mode, I almost never take Grimlock out of dinosaur mode.  Perhaps this picture explains why (at least in regard to the Classics toy).  There's something about this mode that just doesn't work for me.  Perhaps it's the way he stands on the jaws of his split-apart dino head.  Maybe it's the lack of discernible knees.  Or the way his shoulders don't quite seem to lock in place.  I'm not sure (it's not like other toys don't have those "flaws"), but it just doesn't seem to work here.  Not shown here is the fact that the dinosaur tail comes off, and can be held as a weapon, but whereas Pretender Grimlock also did something like this, they at least tried to make that tail look like it doubled as a blaster.  I'm not sure what this Grimlock's supposed to do with his tail in his hand!  (If you really want to see what that looks like, here's a picture)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not-Quite-Transformers Feature: WST Dinorobots

I don't typically feature items that aren't made by either Hasbro or TakaraTomy that nonetheless clearly attempt to replicate Transformers characters. There's a whole line of argument about whether such products are legal or—even if they are technically not illegal—ethical, but the flip side is that fans have gotten some really nifty toys that would almost certainly have never been created otherwise. Generally, I try to avoid that debate these days, but for Dinobot Week, I'm making an exception. Basically, since I don't own any of the G1 Dinobots anymore (my brother has that part of the collection, although I'm sure he'd have happily contributed to the cause, had I asked), but I do own these little guys, this seemed to be a good opportunity to say "I make the rules for my own blog, and that means I can also break them when I deem it necessary!"

A few years ago, a mostly then-unknown company called Justitoys started doing a line that was originally to be called "WST Dinobots." WST comes from "World's Smallest Transformers," a popular (if incorrect) fan name for the "Smallest Transforming Transformers" line. The first toy in the line was even called "Snarl." However, future toys in the line demonstrated a greater awareness that Justitoys was treading on dubious legal ground (at best), and so they decided to play it a bit safer by not using any names that were clearly trademarked by other companies, so the line became "WST Dinorobots," and the other toys tended to be called by the characters' old Tech Spec functions, rather than by their names. Still, they're the Dinobots to me, so from left to right, here's Snarl, Grimlock, Sludge, Slag, and Swoop.

These toys are amazingly faithful (if scaled-down) representations of the original toys (in fact, that's why I put the quarter in the picture, just so it's clear that I am talking about these smaller toys, as opposed to the original ones), which means that the legality of what Justitoys is doing is still in a gray area, at best. One could easily consider these toys "derivative works" of copyrighted designs. But that's the last I'm going to say about legality. I'm not going to get into the question of whether Hasbro or TakaraTomy can or even should do something about this purported infringement. That's up to them.

Although I just said that these toys are "amazingly faithful" to the original toys, Justitoys did make a few deliberate changes. Some, I'm sure, were dictated by the tiny size (some toys have fists that are pegged into the arms, rather than sliding out of them), while others attempted to "fix" things that were considered "flaws" in the original designs (Grimlock's head slides forward just a bit in robot mode, so it's not quite so far back from the torso as it is in the original toy). It also seems that the designers tended toward "cartoon-accurate" colors, as well (Slag's head is red, here, as in the cartoon, whereas the original toy has a black head. I'd have preferred black, myself). In fact, the "main" version of WST Swoop has a blue chest, in keeping with the cartoon version of Swoop, which followed the Diaclone version's coloring. The "red" version of Swoop you see here is actually the TFSource "Stocking Stuffer" version, which I got simply because I preferred the original toy's colors (My brother got the "blue" WST Swoop).

One more note, for the sake of accuracy. Although these toys were sold packaged with stickers, there were early widespread reports that they didn't adhere to the toys well, so I never even bothered with them. Instead, I got stickers from Reprolabels, designed to go with these toys. I even got the WST "rub symbols" to make them as G1-like as I could, although you really can't see any of the rubsigns in these pictures (Grimlock's is on his foot, and you can kind of make out the one on Swoop's dino mode, if you know where to look).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 5: Pilgrimage of Believers

David M. ScholerWhile the Revised Common Lectionary continues its triennial journey through the book of Hebrews, I'm working through a series of lessons from 2001 taught by the late David M. Scholer.

This week's lesson: "The Pilgrimage of the Believers in Hebrews" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

My observations:
  • Dr. Scholer mentions during his introduction that some of what Hebrews has to say about salvation may make many Baptists uncomfortable, because it sounds at times like one can lose his/her salvation.  It is important to remember that Scholer, an American Baptist, is teaching a group from his home church.  Since Scholer notes that Baptists have been more or less "Reformed" since 1660, I expect the issues would pertain equally well to Presbyterians (my own tradition).
  • If Christians are said to be on a journey (emphasized often during this lecture), Christ can be said to have made that journey, as well.
  • Scholer suggests that the message "delivered through angels" is the giving of the law itself.  There was apparently a tradition that Moses was surrounded by angels, referenced in other New Testament works, as well, but I don't see any references to angels in the Mosaic texts, even in Deuteronomy, which Scholer specifically cites.  I can only assume that there is a translation issue, here, and that the word translated "angel" in some English versions is translated as some other word in the version I'm consulting.
  • Scholer relates an account that he had shared with some reporters in then-recent past, reflecting on the significance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (barely more than a month previously).  He suggested that the attacks could be seen as a "wake up call" to return to God.  Hebrews seems to arguing something similar to that audience.
  • Hebrews 11 gives a long list recounting examples of people who lived by faith.  People who endured while on "the journey" before the coming of Christ.  The author suggests that Abraham (and, perhaps less explicitly, the other figures mentioned) was looking forward to God's eternal city.  This is not explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament text, but Abraham is depicted as a person who "believed God," and thus is suggested to have taken part ("deep down") in promises of God that have been made known in the centuries since.
  • Scholer counts 32+ figures mentioned in Chapter 11.  Hebrews says that none of them got the promises God had made to them, but that they would get them when the Christians get them, too.  ("So don't let them down!" Scholer suggests the author is saying)
  • Five characteristics that should be true of people on the journey:  
    1. The pilgrim believer is not to neglect the salvation offered by Christ (the price of neglect is high).  That's why there are so many strong warnings in Hebrews.  (Next week, we'll get to how serious this warning is.  Can you lose salvation?)
    2. A believer ought to grow toward maturity.
    3. Pilgrim believers must engage in mutual support.  You don't care just for yourself, but try to make sure that everyone else makes it.
    4. The pilgrim believers are encouraged to accept discipline and suffering, because Jesus did.  This is difficult, not just because we don't like to be disciplined, but also because we know about issues of abuse and oversimplification when this teaching is cited.  But the fundamental idea of this teaching holds--God will make us stronger, and more able to cope.
    5. Believers must have perseverance and a clear focus on Jesus.  Related to this is the call to "go outside the camp," a reference to Christ's death on the cross (which could not be done within the city itself for religious reasons.  Sacrificial animals were slaughtered outside the city walls, as well, and the blood then brought inside for offering in the temple).
  • In the question and answer session at the end of the lecture, Scholer is asked how he might apply some of the lessons of Hebrews discussed in this lecture (specifically, the call to "go outside," mentioned above) to their congregation.  I expect some of these ideas will work for other congregations, as well, and I appreciate Scholer's suggestion that people need to learn about cultures and ways of living that are different from one's own.
Next Week: salvation and perfection

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dinobots in the Marvel Comics

As I mentioned yesterday, "Repeat Performance!", issue #8 of the 1980's Marvel Transformers comic, was my very first Transformers comic issue.  I had already been following the Transformers saga, with interest, through the toys and comics that my friends at school had, but it was the appearance of the Dinobots that finally got me buying the comic for myself.  From that point on, I never missed an issue, and I even made sure to get the previous seven issues as soon as I could, so that I could lay claim to having the entire series (something I'm still proud about, truth be told).

This issue is commonly considered to the be first (comic) appearance of the Dinobots, but that's not technically true.  In fact, the Dinobots were introduced in a flashback in issue #4, as part of the set-up for the cliffhanger that marked the transition of the comic from a four-issue mini-series to a monthly ongoing series.  In fact, I have always wondered what the original plan was.  The "alternate ending" shown in the UK seems to have been written later, and it therefore doesn't represent the original intentions.  And since Ratchet not only makes an oblique reference to this event in issue #3, but Megatron makes a similarly oblique reference to Shockwave (who also figures into the flashback) in issue #1 (long before any decision could possibly have been made to make this series ongoing!), it seems likely that the Dinobots were always a part of the earliest plans for the series in at least some fashion.

Whatever the original plans for the Dinobots were, it seems clear that writer Bob Budiansky wasn't entirely sure what to do with them.  They disappear entirely after issue #8, only to reappear just long enough to abandon the rest of the Autobots in issue #19.  They don't show up again until issue #27, where Grimlock assumes the role of Autobot leader (and does an absolutely terrible job of it!).   Although this enables Grimlock to finally take the spotlight for a while, the other Dinobots fade into the background, mostly serving as Grimlock's lackeys, even as the other Autobots chafe under Grimlock's leadership.  The Dinobots were certainly portrayed as belligerent, following their team leader's commands quite happily, especially as it represented a very different style from the more mild-mannered Autobots, but they were surprisingly not given quite the limited intelligence that their cartoon versions had, although Grimlock's tenure as leader definitely makes him out to be no Einstein.  All of the Dinobots (including Grimlock) are deactivated in a mass-Transformer-slaughter in issue #50.

Shortly after this time, UK writer Simon Furman (who had already used the Dinobots a bit more frequently in the pages of the UK comic) took over as the main writer on The Transformers.  In Furman's very first US story arc, Grimlock was revived (granted, this may have been because a new Pretender toy of the character was now available in stores), and the character becomes the focus of a couple of significant story developments.  Notably, in an effort to revive his fellow Dinobots, Grimlock procures a substance called Nucleon, which revives not only the other Dinobots, but a number of other "classic" characters.  Nucleon also has the unfortunate side-effect of stripping Grimlock's ability to transform, but by the time the comic is canceled, he is the only Transformer thus afflicted, so it's debatable how much of the Action Master phenomenon is his fault in this continuity.

Under Furman's authorship, Grimlock also becomes Autobot leader once again.  When I first read this development, I was dumbfounded (don't they remember how badly that worked out last time?!?), but it seems to have worked out much better this time around (and, to be fair, it even works "in-continuity," as Optimus Prime was dead the first time around, and thus wouldn't have remembered Grimlock's first tenure as leader firsthand!).  The other Dinobots get a bit of "page time" in that same issue, although it's still mostly just so Grimlock has someone to talk to (glory hog!).  Actually, these last few issues go some way toward establishing the Dinobots as a pre-existing unit even before the Transformers crashed on prehistoric earth (this had been established in the UK, but not so much in the US comics).  It seems that they've always preferred to operate independently from the rest of the Autobots, a fact that actually works out to save everyone by the end of series.  No one can say that the Dinobots weren't important!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dinobot Week Begins

Back in May, we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Transformers franchise.  But why stop there?  Tomorrow, October 27, 2009, is the 25th anniversary of the first appearance of the Dinobots, in the episode "S.O.S. Dinobots" (Yes, although the comic hit the shelves before the cartoon first aired, the cartoon was decidedly earlier than the comic in depicting these characters.  And that was by a couple of months, even by the most generous of estimates).  In honor of this occasion, I am declaring this to be "Dinobot Week" here at Transforming Seminarian, with a full week of daily posting!

Back in 1984, the Transformers were still a pretty new thing, and although I enjoyed seeing the occasional cartoon (still airing only once a week at this point in time), I did not possess very many Transformer toys of my own.  Much of what I would learn about the franchise came from when friends would bring their toys or comics with them on the school bus.  When I first saw the episode "S.O.S. Dinobots," I don't think I fully comprehended that the purpose of the cartoon was to sell toys, the obvious fact of the Transformers toyline's existence notwithstanding.  So when new characters like the Constructicons and the Dinobots were being introduced, I was somehow still surprised to soon discover that my fellow schoolmates actually had toys of these characters.

Kids have been fascinated with dinosaurs for forever, so it makes sense that someone would have thought to incorporate them into the transformable robots concept (the Dinobots, like most early Transformers, were actually created for a Japanese toyline—Diaclone, in this case—and brought over to the Transformers line when Hasbro decided to have Marvel put together a storyline concept to go with those toys).   The fusion of dinosaur and Transformer was so successful, in fact, that hardly a Transformers line has gone by without some kind of an homage to the idea (it might even be easier to name the lines that don't seem to have such an homage, but that would require defining terms far more pedantically than I care to at the moment).

Even though the original Dinobot toys (being somewhat larger than the typical Autobot cars) were generally outside of my price range at the time, I still found them to be fascinating characters.  So what if Slag, Sludge, Snarl, and Swoop got almost no characterization in any of the official fiction (Grimlock really was something of a glory hog, wasn't he?).  They transformed into dinosaurs!  How cool is that?  I think that I can safely say that it was the Dinobots that provided my first real connection into becoming a Transformers fan (in fact, the first Transformers comic I ever purchased was issue #8, but more about that tomorrow).


Having established that the Dinobots, both as a concept in general and talking about the Generation One team in particular, have had an enormous impact on the Transformers franchise, here's is the schedule with which I'm looking to honor them for the rest of the week:

Friday, October 23, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Universe Sharkticon

In the past, I've said that the original Universe line was a line consisting entirely of recolors of previously existing toys.  That's not quite true.  However, the exception to that rule is not, as one might expect, toys with new molds, but rather, previously existing toys being carried over and reissued with no changes whatsoever!

In 2005, as the original Universe line was dying down, several waves of such "unchanged" toys were released under the Universe banner to various store chains, notably KB Toys and discount chains like Big Lots.  These had been released previously under either the Energon or Cybertron lines.  Sharkticon, for example, was an Energon toy "repackaged" (a misnomer I'll get to later) for Universe.

Energon had the at-the-time unique distinction of releasing several toys with names that homaged Generation One characters, but with vehicle modes that only loosely homaged their namesakes.  In Sharkticon's example, although the Generation One version did indeed turn into a shark-like mechanical monster, the Energon/Universe version only vaguely looks shark-like, but is not, in fact, a creature at all.  Rather, it turns into some kind of "Cybertronian submarine."  However, there does seem to be some miscommunication between the toy designers and the people who write the bios.  Sharkticon's official bio mentions "jaws," which the toy utterly lacks.

While Autobots in the Energon line all tended to have some kind of "combining" feature, Decepticons in the line were all given "Hyper Modes" with enhanced weaponry.  These extra weapons could be deployed in either mode.  I actually consider Sharkticon one of the more successful attempts at incorporating this gimmick without actually getting in the way of the rest of the toy.

Toys that are reissued like this in a comparatively short time after their original release (as opposed to, say, the Generation One re-releases of the past several years) are sometimes referred to as "repackaged."  This term is more than a little misleading, because it conveys the idea that Hasbro took a bunch of toys (presumably, ones that stores couldn't sell during the toys' original release) out of their original packages, created new packages, put the toys in those packages, and then sent them back out to stores.  If one takes the time to think about the amount of effort and expense this implies, it is naturally demonstrated to be a ludicrous notion.  I'm not sure what other term to suggest, though.  "Reissue" already conveys something rather different (toys that haven't been around for a good long time, finally being reintroduced to the market).  So, I expect "repackaged" is going to be used for a while longer, yet.

Incidentally, these Universe versions still show up at Big Lots from time to time.  Now that the Christmas holidays are just around the corner, I see that they've unloaded a bunch from their warehouses yet again, so if Sharkticon appeals to you, feel free to head down and see if you can find it!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 4: Christology (Part 2)

David M. ScholerWhile the Revised Common Lectionary continues its triennial journey through the book of Hebrews, I'm working through a series of roughly hour-long lessons from 2001 taught by the late David M. Scholer.

This week's lesson: "The Christology of Hebrews: Part 2" (MP3 file uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

My observations:
  • The priesthood of Christ is the major discussion in Hebrews, taking up more space than any other single topic in the book.  Scholer calls this method of describing Christ to the audience of Hebrews "clever."  The author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is a priest of a different order than the order of the priests of Israel (that is, the Levitical order).  Since Christ is a priest of a different order, the author of Hebrews is able to argue that Christ's priesthood is different than, and superior to, the traditional Levitical priesthood.  More on this "clever" usage later.
  • The author of Hebrews is arguing less with the literal practices of Judaism of the time, and more with the theological heritage of that perspective.  Scholer notes how Hebrews tends to discuss the "tabernacle," and not the "temple."
  • After some introductions, the first real area where Hebrews discusses Jesus as high priest occurs in 4:14-5:10.  The identity of Jesus with humanity is emphasized--"in every way," with one exception: Jesus was without sin.  Jesus can represent the people because he himself was subject to the weaknesses that people are subject to.  Likewise, Hebrews paints Jesus as a priest by noting that Jesus was called by God, and that Jesus made sacrifice for the sins of the people.  It is at the end of this section that the author identifies Jesus' priestly order as being the order of Melchizedek. 
  • As Scholer notes, "Hebrews is replete with Old Testament passages."  In particular, Hebrews uses two Psalms: Psalms 2 and 110.  These are sometimes called "Royal Psalms," and were originally addressed to the leader of Israel (perhaps King David).  So when the Psalm says "you are My Son. Today I have begotten you," or (paraphrasing) "you're in the priesthood of Melchizedek," this was originally understood as being God's word to the ruler of Israel.  When the early church read these Psalms, they saw them as applying to Christ in a special way, and this is how Hebrews uses them.
  • If the author of Hebrews wants to describe Jesus as being a priest, there's one major hurdle to overcome.  Jesus is not a Levite, and all Jewish priests were Levites.  This is where the author's argument is "clever" (in Scholer's terms).  The only other priesthood alluded to in the Old Testament is that of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 (the only other time Melchizedek is even mentioned outside of Psalm 110:4).  Not only is Melchizedek described in Genesis as a priest, but he is also a King.  The King of Salem (believed to be the same as Jerusalem).  And not only all this, but Abraham himself pays the tithe to Melchizedek (Abraham is basically paying for safe passage through Melchizedek's land).  The author of Hebrews can then use this fact to suggest that, since Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, all Jews have paid the tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham, including Levi (and thus all Levitical priests).  Thus, if Jesus is a priest of Melchizedek's order, his priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood.
  • After Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, the next time we hear about Melchizedek is in the Qumran community (the folks who created the Dead Sea Scrolls).  The Qumran community percieved of Melchizedek as an almighty, divine person--in essence, as one who sat at God's right hand (as in Psalm 110).  The people at Qumran even suggested that Melchizedek, as God's divine agent, had the authority to forgive sins.  Scholer reads from a passage about Melchizedek, written before Jesus' birth (perhaps 100-50 BC), which uses language we today would associate with Jesus.  Perhaps the author of Hebrews was aware of this tradition?  (This can't be proven)
  • Some of the argument from Hebrews regarding the Melchizedekian priesthood's superiority over the Levitical priesthood sounds a lot like Plato's Forms.  This development of thought seems to be one of the reasons that Scholer supposes that the author of Hebrews might have been from Alexandria (see also the second lecture in this series), as other thinkers from Alexandria (the academic center of the era)--notably the Jewish scholar, Philo--have demonstrated similar concepts.
  • The concept of a "new covenant" wasn't unique or original to Christianity.  The Qumran community used a term like this to refer to themselves, as well.  They wanted to express that the "old" covenant was corrupt and that they had the "truth."  Indeed, this sounds to me quite a lot like what a lot of religious sects and cults claim....
  • The emphasis of Hebrews on Jesus' humanity has historically made the Church (which tends to stress Jesus' divinity) uncomfortable.  Scholer especially notes how Hebrews says that Jesus "learned obedience."  Jesus is "not a fake human being."  For an example of how difficult it was for the Church to grasp this concept, Clement of Alexandria (a 2nd century theologian who actually spent a lot of time defending Jesus' humanity) suggested at one point that Jesus only ate and drank "for appearances sake" and never defecated.
Next week: The pilgrimage journey of the believers

Monday, October 19, 2009

Perseverance and Persecution Complexes

One of the professors I work for at Fuller teaches courses on Spirituality.  As part of my job, I sometimes I have to type out prayer services to be used in his classes.  This "Prayer Appointed for the Week" comes from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, for use on the "Monday - Nearest to October 19" (how convenient that October 19th is Monday this year!)"
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. †
I am struck by the reference to perseverance.  Since the "Church" is the antecedent in that sentence, this doesn't sound to me like the kind of thing we talk about when we talk (for example) about needing God's strength to help us through hard times.  There are lots of prayers for that, too, of course (and we certainly need them!).  Rather, this strikes me more as a statement about the Church, that is, the collective body of Christian believers, needing God's assistance to survive as an institution.

It's hard for me to hear a thought like that without being reminded of the constant barrage of statements by certain Christians about our faith being "under attack," usually by certain political elements.  My gut instinct is usually to dismiss such proclamations as those of people with a "persecution complex."  That is, people who fear that, if they don't get their way on a particular issue, everything they hold dear will cease to exist.  It's almost as if they're living in a house of cards.  One poorly placed card, or an unfortunate sneeze on the part of an onlooker, and everything will come crashing down.

I do not think that the Christian faith is so fragile.  However, I believe this precisely because I trust God to maintain the Church.  The Church of the future may not look like the Church of today--indeed, I hope that it doesn't!  But I trust that God will provide whatever is necessary for the Church to survive.

Perhaps that sounds a bit complacent.  If that is indeed my attitude, then I ask for forgiveness.   I need reminders that the Church needs God's provision in order to survive.  Prayers like this are important, and I do not wish to dismiss them, even if I don't agree with those who make the Church's survival sound as fragile as a house of cards. 

Friday, October 16, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Kiss Players Position Set

Over the years, the Transformers franchise has had many different iterations. The latest Transformers movie notwithstanding, I could argue that none has generated the level of controversy of the 2006 Kiss Players line in Japan. Some of the controversy is due to the sexually charged nature of some of the art (some of it really is pretty bad) and of the main gimmick (mild by comparison, mostly involving Transformers gaining energy from being kissed by young girls), and some of it just plain bizarre. This is not a line I really followed all that much, and I'll leave it to you to check out the link above if you really want to know more about the franchise.

In fact, the entirety of my Kiss Players collection is made up of these three figures, which were sold as a set exclusive to e-Hobby, a Japanese store affiliated with TakaraTomy. Actually, I really wanted just one of them, the reasons for which I'll get to in a bit. But I needed to buy the set to get that one, unless I wanted to get it used (and the price for the set was low enough new that there was little reason to bother). All three are recolors of Generation One cassettes. From left to right, this is Sundor, Rosanna, and Glit.

Let's start with Sundor, a recolor of Laserbeak. Sundor is a nominally Autobot condor who's secretly a spy for the Decepticons. As might be assumed via the name, Sundor has solar-based weaponry, and is fascinated by solar trivia, which apparently comprises the near-entirety of the data recorded on his cassette mode.

Next up is Rosanna, arguably the pinkest Transformer I'd ever seen, at least before Elita-1 came along! (I've always been a bit ambivalent about assigning gender to robots in the first place, but I'm especially annoyed at these supremely stereotypical examples) Rosanna is a recolor of Eject. Strangely enough, both Rosanna and another new character, Flip Sides, were released in Japan before they got around to an actual reissue of Eject (or his 80's contemporary recolor, Rewind), which finally happened this past March.  Rosanna, an Autobot, is perhaps unique among Transformers characters, in that she's a pop music star.

Finally, we have Glit. Glit is a recolor of the original Ravage toy. Although Glit is a Decepticon, Glit is a rarity among members of his faction, in that he is a doctor. In fact, Glit's cassette mode isn't used for recording data, but is in fact a "head-cleaning cassette," used to keep cassette players in good working order.

These three Transformers, perhaps following Rosanna's lead (I confess I'm fuzzy on the details, as I don't read or speak Japanese), joined up with some humans to form a singing group. I'm not clear on why the fully-Decepticon Glit joined this band of (supposed, in the case of Sundor) Autobots and humans, but it's clear enough that Glit is kind-hearted for a Decepticon, and this fact has brought him into some tension with his superiors. To emphasize the musical nature of this group, this set of toys also comes with an audio CD with two songs. I've listened to them, and they're okay, but my appreciation is definitely hampered by my ignorance of the language.

Anyway, as to the reason I bought this set. Transformers fan (and creator of the webcomic, Shortpacked!) David Willis decided that Glit would make an appropriate "Shattered Glass Ravage," and created a Twitter page and Facebook account for the character. This fan character quickly became very popular, and was eventually made official by inclusion in the Transformers Collectors' Club prose story "Eye in the Sky." Unlike more conventional interpretations of the character, this version of Ravage craves attention, and speaks largely like a LOLcat. He's absolutely hilarious, and after reading "Eye in the Sky," I promptly looked up prices for Glit, so that I could put a Shattered Glass Decepticon faction symbol on him and repurpose the toy. He now stands proudly next to my Shattered Glass Soundwave.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day 2009: Big Change From Little Straws

(Note to the Blog Action Day event folks, the script inserted at the end of last year's entry--when the topic for the event was "Poverty"--makes it look like it was written for this year's event on Climate Change.  You might want to reconsider how that's done, so that there isn't a mis-match when folks inevitably see these entries months and years down the road.  Just a thought.)

It's no secret that the political climate of America has become more than a little toxic.  Bring up a charged topic like "Climate Change" and there's pretty much no way to win.  You'll be dismissed for being too "liberal" by "conservatives" if you present a sense of too much urgency about the issue, but you'll be dismissed as "not caring enough" if you don't sound "urgent enough."  However much climate change may be "an inconvenient truth" that needs wrestling with, it often seems like almost nothing can be done--certainly not on the scale required to make real change--simply because it's so difficult to get the average person to listen.

Personally, while I do care about environmental issues, I have little patience for a lot of sites out there (many of which are Christian faith-based) that, perhaps without entirely realizing it, foster an attitude of "whatever you're doing, it's not enough."  I think such an attitude does more to paralyze than it does to encourage action.  That's not to say that I think that most people are doing enough when it comes to good stewardship of the resources we've been given.  It's to say that I think we need to be careful about how we make our case for change.

Dr. Glen Stassen is a professor of Christian Ethics here at Fuller Theological Seminary, and I took his course about a decade ago.  While he makes choices that I think I could safely say are "too extreme" for me, personally (Note to students: don't bring a plastic bag into his presence if you can help it!), he is good about advocating for small changes, done consistently.  Car pool more.  Drive less (bike to work if you can).  Put a brick in your toilet (or, perhaps even better, get one of those low volume models).  Use your air conditioner and your heater less.  I'm sure that there's nothing new here.  My favorite example is far more subtle: say "no" to the straw.

Basically, if you eat at a restaurant where you're allowed to self-serve, don't take a straw if you're not going to be traveling with the food (the more aggressive among you might even try telling your waiter or waitress not to give you a straw at the nicer restaurants, but I've never been very successful at that, and once it's on your table, they're just going to throw it out, so the damage is already done).  The plastic used in straws is generally non-recyclable (plastic straws tend to be code #5, and most recycling centers only take codes #1 and #2), and thus is just thrown out once it's been used (usually only that one time!).  One straw is obviously only a tiny thing, but multiply that by however many times you eat out, and by however many people follow the same advice, and that's a significant amount of plastic that isn't being wasted.  Naturally, fewer straws used means fewer straws ordered by the restaurant.  Fewer straws ordered means less plastic being created and consumed.  That means less waste for landfills, and fewer of the chemicals used to create the plastics being thrown out or pumped into the atmosphere, as well.

Politicians often talk like making changes to business structures that are bad for the environment would be too expensive to be practical.  But clearly a change like using fewer straws would actually be economically beneficial!  If businesses don't have to order straws so often, they save money.  Granted, in this example, the "straw industry" stands to lose some money.  But since greater efficiency is gained overall, I can't say that I'm too worried on that count.

Obviously, there will be those who argue that I'm not going nearly far enough.  They would say (I assume) that only radical changes can achieve that kinds of improvements that are needed.  I'm not unsympathetic to that concern.  However, I firmly believe that if we only look for radical change, the amount of change that actually occurs will be far too small to be meaningful.  Big changes multiplied by only a few people = little impact.  However, I think that by encouraging people to make small, but consistent, changes in their lifestyles, we stand a far more realistic chance of making a real difference.  Little changes multiplied by many people = Big impact!

So, the next time you're at a restaurant, just say "no, thanks" to the straw!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 3: Christology (Part 1)

David M. ScholerWhile the Revised Common Lectionary continues its triennial journey through the book of Hebrews, I'm working through a series of lessons from 2001 taught by the late David M. Scholer.

This week's lesson: "The Christology of Hebrews: Part 1" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

My observations:
  • Scholer opens by introducing his friend, Father Robert Karris.  I've met Father Karris on a number of occasions.  Last I heard, Karris was working on a book detailing Scholer's teachings on "Women, the Bible, and the Church."  I wonder how that's coming along? 
  • Although Hebrews contains quite a lot of comment about the person and work of Jesus Christ, the author did not sit down to write thinking "the church needs a good Christology, so I'm going to write one."  Rather, Hebrews was written in response to pastoral concerns, specifically, concern that the audience of the letter might fall away from the faith.  The Christological material of Hebrews is merely the framework in which the exhortation addressing these concerns took place.  First and foremost, people can have hope because of who Jesus Christ is, and what Jesus Christ does.
  • The concept of the "last days" was closely tied to the concept of God acting, specifically for the salvation of God's people.  Since God was clearly acting in this way through the coming of Jesus Christ, the idea that Christians were living in the "last days" was a natural conclusion.
  • The conviction that Jesus was God was a difficult thing for the early the church to wrestle with.  In the midst of a generally polytheistic world, the Jews accused the early Church of having two Gods, and therefore not being truly monotheistic, as they were.  Even today, the concept of the trinity (including the Holy Spirit as God, as well) remains one of the most difficult concepts of the Christian faith to understand.
  • There are some parts of the apocryphal book of Wisdom (written in the first century before the birth of Christ, according to Scholer) where Wisdom is described in practically divine terms that sound a lot like how Jesus is described in the book of Hebrews.
  • There is an interesting "rabbit trail" in the middle of the discussion whereby Scholer discusses feminine imagery for God (stemming from the discussion of "Lady Wisdom").  14th century mystic Julian of Norwich (a woman, the "male" name notwithstanding) even describes Jesus as a "mother."
  • The discussion in Hebrews of Jesus as superior to angels may reflect a concern that people were giving too much attention to angels.
  • There were three pivotal figures in Judaism: Abraham (father of the Jewish people), Moses (the liberator), and David (the great king).  Jesus is, at various points, compared to each one of these to demonstrate Jesus' superiority to them all.  Scholer specifically mentions how Hebrews deals with Moses in relation to Jesus.  The author of Hebrews is very careful never to criticize Moses.  Jesus, however, is worthy of "more glory" than Moses.
Next week: Jesus as "the great high priest"

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    I Hate Columbus Day!

    If you're at all like me, you may not have realized that today is Columbus Day.  Not, at least, until you tried to get something done, only to be reminded that you couldn't get it done because the agency that you needed to work with isn't available on Columbus Day.  For me, I was trying to send in a receipt to my Health Care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), so that I might have a little extra money to tide things over before the next pay day.  Even if things go well, it takes about a week for these things to process, and so I was trying to get things moving sooner rather than latter.

    Then I found the notice on the FSA's web page: "Forms will not be processed on October 12, 2009, due to the Columbus Day holiday."

    Why do we even continue to "celebrate" (and I use the term loosely) Columbus Day, anyway?  It's been long-established that he didn't actually discover the new world (and we certainly don't celebrate Leif Ericson day*), and the vast majority of us still have to go to work or school.  The only groups that actually do seem to get the day off are the banks, the post office, and other organizations that the rest of us actually depend on to get stuff done.

    I'm apparently not the only person opposed to the celebration of Columbus Day, but I really don't care about the political reasons given there.  I just resent not being able to do what I need to do because of a holiday that routinely comes without warning, and doesn't actually provide any of the actual benefits that a holiday is supposed to provide.  At least give me the day off, for crying out loud!

    *Actually, Wikipedia says we do celebrate Leif Erikson Day (Note the alternate spelling of Ericson's name, as Wikipedia has it, specifically in regard to the day), but since I've never ever heard of it, I think I can safely say, "No, I don't!"

    Friday, October 09, 2009

    Weekly Transformers Feature: Classics Megatron

    Last week, I emphasized that one of the goals of the Classics line was to give Generation One characters updated forms that were still somewhat analogous to their original ones. This means that, even if you haven't yet seen the Classics toy in robot mode, you probably would stand a good chance of guessing which character it was intended to be just by looking at its alternative form, provided you have a good working knowledge of the Generation One characters. This intention on the part of the designers meant that some creativity would have to be exercised in order to create a Classics Megatron that retained the Generation One commonality, yet kids would actually be able to purchase in toy stores.

    As far back ago as the beginning of Generation Two, Hasbro no longer considered it viable for one of their toys to resemble a realistic weapon, such as Generation One Megatron's Walther-P38 handgun. That's why Generation Two Megatron is a green tank, and other "Megatron's" over the years have tended to follow suit (although there is admittedly much more variety among Megatrons than there is among Optimus Primes). That's not to say that Hasbro never sells "weapons." Their Nerf and Star Wars lines both have several examples of gun-like weaponry. However, all of these made in the past couple of decades adhere to some fairly strict guidelines. At BotCon 2002, Hasbro reportedly showed a picture of an attempt to recolor the original Walther-P38 Megatron according to these guidelines, so that they could sell it in stores. The result was said to be a horrifically eye-searing combination of bright blue and orange, and apparently "even that" wouldn't have been enough to make that mold viable for selling to children (Incidentally, a lot of adult fans ask "well, then, why not just sell it as an adult collectible?" Legally, that might work, but Hasbro simply won't risk their reputation by selling something that could harm a kid, and no amount of "adult" labeling and/or marketing is going to change that problem. If you want a Generation One Megatron reissue, import it from Japan.). Classics Megatron's alt mode, no longer tied to the Generation One mold, enabled them to design a "weapon" that wouldn't realistically be mistaken for a real firearm, yet still homaged the original. Even still, the "safety orange" is there for a reason.

    I think that it's safe to say that Classics Megatron is the most complicated toy of the entire Classics line. I find it infuriatingly awkward. It's not so difficult to the point of being inappropriate for a children's toy, but non-intuitive enough that I've probably only transformed this toy a total of three times back and forth in the three years I've owned it. Usually, it just sits on the shelf in robot mode.

    As to the mildly Generation One-esque weapon mode, there's actually a debate that's raged on in the fan community over the years about just how viable a handgun alternate mode would have been for the evil Decepticon leader, anyway. In the cartoon, for example, Megatron usually has to be held by one of his soldiers to be used (and most often, it seems, that soldier is Starscream, the guy who's always trying to knock him off and take over leadership! Yeah, like that makes sense!). And in the Transformers club-produced comic that featured the Classics characters, Megatron is never actually seen using his weapon mode (granted, a lot of characters never seem to actually transform in these comics, perhaps a side-effect of only getting six pages every two months...). So, I figure I'm in good company if I just keep this toy in robot mode all the time.

    Wednesday, October 07, 2009

    David Scholer on Hebrews Part 2: Purpose and Structure

    David M. ScholerWhile the Revised Common Lectionary continues its triennial journey through the book of Hebrews, I'm working through a series of lessons from 2001 taught by the late David M. Scholer.

    This week's lesson: "The Purpose and Structure of Hebrews" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

    Some highlights:
    • Although Hebrews is collected with the epistles (letters), Hebrews doesn't have the salutation/blessing pattern that opens all (Scholer's emphasis) letters of this era.  Hebrews does have an ending that is similar to letters, however.  Scholer explains this by suggesting that Hebrews is, in fact, an early sermon (the book refers to itself as an "exhortation").
    • Dr. Scholer's lecture last week gave brief mention about the encouragements and warnings contained within Hebrews.  He elaborates on that considerably here.  Apparently the warnings become more and more intense as the letter progresses.  It seems clear that the writer of Hebrews was deeply concerned about the people being written to.  The encouragements serve to help soften the blow of those warnings.  The letter follows a pattern of Christology, warning, encouragement throughout.
    • I was especially impressed by a story Dr. Scholer told about an experiment his wife Jeannette conducted as part of a Bible study she was leading.  Having gotten a letter from a long-time friend, she read the letter to the rest of the group without telling them anything about the friend (who none of them already knew) to provide context.  The group was then able to reconstruct a considerable portion of the friend's background just from what was contained within the letter.  This is very much the same kind of thing that modern scholars have to do with ancient texts (such as those of the Bible) to try to determine their context and purpose.  Naturally, some of this depends on speculation and cannot be proven, and some texts provide more information than others, but this nonetheless provides a considerable amount of insight into the letter once this exercise is completed.
    • Best clue to the context of Hebrews comes in Chapter 10 (starting in verse 32).  The author hints at persecution, but indicates (in a later passage) that this persecution has not yet resulted in loss of life.  We can't tell what particular persecution is being referred to here, but there's plenty of evidence of local persecutions in the first century.  The author of Hebrews seems concerned that the people being written to are in danger of falling away from the faith out of fear of persecution.
    • Pliny the Younger describes male and female deacons in Christian worship.  I need to look this bit up....
    • One clue as to the location of congregation is at the very end, where it is written that some Italian friends of the author send greetings.  Perhaps the author was in Italy, but it seems more likely it was the congregation that was in Italy.  
    • Scholer argues that the author was most likely a Jew living in Alexandria, Egypt, based on the pattern of the author's argumentation.  Alexandria was the 2nd-largest city in the entire Roman Empire, and it contained the largest Jewish community in the entire Empire (even more than in Jerusalem).  We know a lot about this era and community through the writings of Philo, a Jewish scholar who lived in Alexandria.
    • Guesses as to the identity of the author:

      1. Luke - because Luke/Acts has very sophisticated Greek, as does Hebrews
      2. Paul - suggested more strongly around the 3rd century, based mostly on the fact he wrote so many of the OTHER books.  Origen said "only God knows who wrote Hebrews" at about the same time, but suggested that "if by saying Paul wrote it, people will read it, let's say Paul wrote it."  Indeed, Hebrews almost didn't make it into the New Testament, and seems only to have included in the canon on the belief that Paul wrote it, even though this is now known to be almost certainly incorrect.
      3. Apollos - originally posited by Martin Luther, noting that Apollos came from Alexandria.  A lot of scholars think this may be right.
      4. Priscilla - originally suggested by Adolf von Harnack, who thought there were some "feminine touches" in Hebrews.
    • We don't know when Hebrews was written, as the internal clues don't help much.  Some scholars argue that it has to be before AD 70 because it fails to mention the destruction of the temple, although Scholer dismisses this reasoning because the relevant arguments in the text discuss the tabernacle (i.e., referencing a far earlier period of Jewish history) and thus the temple wouldn't be a reference point either way.  It was almost certainly written within the later half of the first century, but greater specificity is difficult, if not impossible.
    Next Lecture

      Monday, October 05, 2009

      No Tax? How Did That Happen?

      I was struck by an article on CNN.com this past week that suggested that 47% of households will owe no federal income tax in 2009.  My first reaction to such a statement is "that can't possibly be true!"   Even allowing for the fact that many of this 47% will still be paying state and local taxes, as well as Medicare and Social Security taxes taken right out of their paychecks, that is an amazingly high number!  But the more I think about it, the more I feel that the figure may not be so far off....

      We've been told for some time now that unemployment rates are hovering around 10%.  Of course, that 10% isn't "households," but rather "10% of adults."  A married couple with only one spouse working, for example, would mean that the "non-working" spouse is counted as "unemployed," without respect to whether or not the working spouse makes enough for the entire household to live on.  To put it another way, this kind of a "household" isn't unemployed.  One spouse has a job, and it may possibly pay well enough that this household won't be in the 47%.  Naturally, if one spouse doesn't have a paying job, the odds of being in that 47% are indeed greater.  Indeed, it's been the case for decades now that it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet without both parents having incomes in a household with children.  Indeed, this phenomenon has had more than a few youth workers concerned that children aren't getting the parental attention they need.  Parents have to make a choice between enough food on the table and proper supervision, and there are no easy answers.

      Cost of Living in Los Angeles, California Compared to Other Major CitiesI imagine that the problem is especially difficult in a state like California, where the cost of living is ridiculously high (although at least we're not as bad as New York, judging from the chart on the left!).  I actually doubt I'll be in that "tax free" 47% percent, myself (I guess I'll find out sometime between January 31st and April 15th), but I still struggle to make ends meet.  And I'm most definitely one of the lucky ones!  The unemployment rate in California is over 12%!  So a smaller percentage of us even have jobs with which to try to earn even more money needed to get by....  So I'm thankful that both my wife and I have jobs, however much we wish that they paid better (or, perhaps even more to the point, that my wife, who's working on a PhD, didn't have to hold a job in order for us to be able to pay for rent and food.  Then she might have the time she needs to study and prepare for her upcoming dissertation work).  I have to imagine that means that things are that much worse for many, many of my fellow California citizens (who may not even have the option of selling Transformers or e-books to try to make up the difference.  Yes, this is a shameless plug!).

      I'm not looking to get into the question (raised by the original article) about whether or not the tax system is too "progressive," or if the current situation is "sustainable" or not.  We already know that the government will have to start taking in more revenue anyway, even without accounting for whether or not they're getting funds from a broad enough base of the America people.  Thankfully, there are signs that the economy is starting to turn around.  Although this still hasn't translated into a reduction of the unemployment rate (at best, the rate of growth in the numbers of people who are unemployed may be slowing down, but that's still not an actual reduction), there is perhaps reason to hope that such a reduction will come sooner rather than later.  I certainly would argue that it can't come soon enough!

      Friday, October 02, 2009

      Weekly Transformers Feature: Classics Optimus Prime

      Starting around the holiday season of the year 2006, many long-time Transformers fans finally got what they'd been asking to get for more than a decade.  Finally, Hasbro truly revisited the Generation One era, giving classic characters updated forms utilizing 21st century toymaking technology.  Granted, this wasn't exactly the first time these characters had been revived since the original line ended in 1991.  The 2003 Alternators line, for example, also gave old characters new forms, but Alternators was a side-line with the stated purpose of using licensed ground vehicle forms (i.e., only cars and a few trucks).  This limitation meant that some reborn characters (such as Shockwave and Grimlock) were given forms wholly unrelated to their Generation One identities.

      The Classics line, on the other hand, was more of a true "update."  While the updated Classics alternate modes were by no means identical to a character's Generation One form, they were very obviously similar.  So although Classics Optimus Prime is no longer quite as boxy as he used to be, and while he no longer comes with a transforming trailer, he's still a truck.

      Besides having far greater articulation than toys of the '80s, updated toy tech also means that one no longer has to worry about things like detachable fists or weapons that don't have any place to go when Prime has changed into vehicle mode.  Rather, the fists are actually a part of the toy, and the weapons--as with most (but by no means all) modern Transformers--are actually created out of parts of the vehicle mode (in this case, the smokestacks and the aero fairing) that themselves "transform" into the weapons.  This is, of course, nothing new to Transformers toys themselves, but it's a first (not counting Alternators) for a Generation One Optimus Prime character toy (even "Masterpiece" Prime's weapon doesn't store in vehicle mode, much less transform into a part of it!).

      Classics Prime's weapons even combine, although I have to admit that I've never been all that happy with these "shoulder cannons," so I don't actually use this option often.

      Sadly, the Classics line was only ever intended as "filler" between the end of Cybertron and the beginning of the 2007 movie-based line of toys, and so lasted for only about 8 months or so, nowhere near as long as many fans would have liked.  However, the concepts behind Classics have continued into other lines since then, and although toy stores are currently saturated with movie-based toys again (since the release of the sequel, Revenge of the Fallen), Hasbro promises to revisit these characters and concepts as long as they can be convinced that such toys will sell.

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