Election 2018

In past years I’ve voted straight down the Democratic Party ticket. The exception was when the Democratic candidate was also running as a candidate for a minority party (e.g., Working Families); then I vote for them under the minority ticket in an attempt to give greater voice to those who feel underrepresented.

This year, I feel I’m obligated not to be so lazy. If partisan politics are tearing this country apart, then part of the repair process is for individuals to look at people and policy, and not just vote for one party as if you were supporting your favorite baseball team.

With that in mind, here are the races that appear on my ballot on November 6, 2018, courtesy of Ballotpedia. As I go down the Ballotpedia list, I’ll check out the candidates’ web sites, go over their positions, and choose. Perhaps my choices will be same as if I voted in my usual way, but at least it will be a measured decision.

US Senate: Kirsten Gillibrand (D) vs. Chele Farley (R). This race is tough for me to view dispassionately, since the thought of potentially contributing to a Senate that’s in lock-step with the President causes my gorge to rise. Fortunately, I can supply a rationalization I can live with: according to her web site, Ms. Farley is heavily associated with big business, which I feel already exerts an undue influence on our political process. Senator Gillibrand states that she’s in favor of stronger unions and raising the minimum wage. My vote will be for Gillibrand.

House of Representatives District 17: Nita Lowey (D) vs. Joe Ciardullo (Reform Party). Mr. Ciardullo is basically running on a platform that taxes are too high. I don’t agree; I just think they’re misspent or unfairly allocated. Representative Lowey’s platform agrees with my views on many issues, in particular improving math and science education for children. I will vote for Lowey.

Governor of New York: Andrew Cuomo (D), Marc Molinaro (R), Larry Sharpe (Libertarian), Stephanie Miner (Independent), Howie Hawkins (Green). First, an observation: the minority-party candidates go into much more detail on their policies than Cuomo’s and Molinaro’s sites, Sharpe’s site in particular; kudos to them! I went over the candidates’ positions on their web sites. I’m not fond of Cuomo, but my vote will go to him. The other candidates focus on doing more “good things” while lowering taxes, and my math tells me that’s not possible. I’m not looking for a tax break, I’m looking for the money to be spent more responsibly.

Lieutenant Governor of New York: Kathy Hochul (D), Julie Killian (R), Andrew Hollister (Libertarian), Michael Volpe, Jia Lee (Green). I note that, except for Lt. Governor Hochul, the chain of web links for the remaining candidates all point to the sites for the gubernatorial candidate of the same party. I don’t see that it’s necessary for a lieutenant governor to be of the same party as the governor; in fact, Mayor Miner (D) picked Mayor Volpe (R) to be her running mate. But as it stands, I have little information about the lieutenant governor candidates that distinguishes them from their counterparts in the same election. Given that, it appears my vote goes to Hochul by default.

If I’m being honest, there’s another reason I’m voting for the Cuomo/Hochul ticket: By voting for a minority-party candidate, I increase the chance that a supporter of the current US President might become governor. I’m strongly tempted to vote for the Miller/Volpe ticket on the basis of the non-partisan unity it potentially represents, but I’m weaseling out.

Attorney General of New York: Lititia James (D), Keith Wofford (R), Nancy Sliwa (Reform), Christopher Garvey (Libertarian), Michael Sussman (Green). Strangely, this is the race for which I’m writing this blog post, because I was inspired by this segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. I note that all the AG candidates vow to fight the corruption of the current state government, which I heartily support, but this gives me no basis to choose between them. The minority-party candidates have only skimpy statements on their positions. Mr. Wofford’s web site blames problems on “ultra-liberal politicians,” which suggest to me that he’d take a partisan approach to the job. So my vote will go to James, not just by process of elimination but because she speaks to the issues in greater detail than the other candidates and I generally agree with her positions.

New York Comptroller: Thomas DiNapoli (D), Jonathan Trichter (R), Cruger Gallaudet (Libertarian), Mark Dunlea (Green). Given my general political ignorance, you can correctly assume that my first question was “What the heck is a comptroller?” Once I learned that, I could assess the positions on the web sites: Gallaudet isn’t even trying, Dunlea echos the Green Party positions, and Trichter seems too closely tied to big business for my taste. Again, by process of elimination, I will cast my vote for Comptroller DiNapoli.

New York State Senate District 38: David Carlucci (D) vs. C. Scott Vanderhoef (R). Neither is campaigning much, at least not on the web. If I were going with “partisan” loyalty, I might have gone with Vanderhoef since he also went to Columbia University and was a Rockland County Executive. But I’ve been typing this blog post for two hours in an effort to try to be non-partisan and failing miserably, and so I’m going to vote for Carlucci. I have to hope that the promises of reform in Albany (yes, I know these promises are made every election cycle) will help keep him honest.

New York State Assembly District 97: Ellen Jaffe (D) vs. Rosario Presti Jr. (R). Presti doesn’t seem to be trying. Also, I think I’m distantly related to Jaffe. So I’m voting for her.

Final results: For all my efforts, I wind up voting down the party line anyway. That’s politics for you!

Shroud of the Avatar

Sometimes you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Shroud of the Avatar makes a lousy one. After spending a few hours with the game, I feel no desire to continue playing it. I didn’t even get out of the starting area.

Shroud of the Avatar (SotA) is a MMORPG (massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game). There’s a blunt reality when you design a new MMORPG: World of Warcraft (WoW) is the 600-lb gorilla in this field. I can’t help but compare SotA to WoW. I know that many millions of dollars have been poured into WoW’s development, and perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. But SotA has some significant game-play issues that discouraged me immediately.

I got into SotA by helping to Kickstart the game in 2014. Even though I was a regular WoW player at the time (and still am), I was attracted to the concept of the new game because it was designed by Richard Garriott aka Lord British, the developer of one the favorite games from my childhood, Ultima III. After kickstarting the game, I received periodic emails about SotA’s development, but I had no desire to play the beta version of the game.

Finally, after three years, I got the announcement of the game’s official release. On a Macintosh, Shroud of the Avatar is played via the Steam portal. I downloaded it, started it… and promptly got lost. The problem was, by default, SotA uses a different set of keys to navigate than WoW. It was hard for me to get around. It wasn’t until the second time I tried the game that I realized I had to reconfigure the SotA keys to match WoW to be able to play it at all.

My second impression was how dull the game looked. I’m used to Steam games, and know they generally don’t make the best use of a graphics card; I lowered my expectations accordingly. But here the color contrasts seemed flat and uninteresting. Again, I may be spoiled by WoW, which uses a bright and more cartoony color palette.

The issues with color palette became particularly obvious when night fell within the game. Both WoW and SotA have day/night cycles. In WoW, even when it’s night, it just means the sky and shading become different; you can still see to get around. In SotA, without a torch you can’t see much of anything. SotA’s approach is more realistic, but it means that half the time it’s more difficult to travel from place to place because you can’t see where you’re going.

This might not have been a problem, except that SotA in its starting zones borrowed a trick from WoW’s later expansions: crinkly terrain. In WoW’s starting zones, you can generally travel from one point to another by going in a straight line. In SotA’s starting zones, the terrain blocks straight-line paths between the initial quests and their destinations, so your avatar has to do a lot of walking. In the game’s daytime, this is annoying enough; at night you just get lost.

I’ve got one more visual complaint: In the starting zones, everyone looks the same. Every character starts off with the same gear. You can customize your avatar’s appearance and gender, but those differences aren’t obvious. All my fellow characters were wearing the same shirt, pants, and hat. Visually it looked like a bunch of clones wandering around.

The same thing would happen in WoW, except that WoW has distinct character classes: warriors, warlocks, mages, and so forth. While every starting avatar of a given class has the same gear, the differences between the starting gear of the various classes avoids SotA’s problem. Also, in WoW you start to acquire new gear within a few minutes of playing the game. In SotA, I didn’t get any new gear during the few hours I played, at least none that affected my avatar’s appearance.

As you may have gathered from the previous paragraph, in SotA there aren’t character classes common to many role-playing games. Your character starts with points in some initial skills based on a set of questions you’re asked during character generation, but in the long run you can put skill points in any of the skills available in the game.

In general, I like systems in which your ultimate abilities aren’t restricted when you create your character (anyone who’s ever created a character in my tabletop RPG Argothald can attest to this). The problem I found with SotA is that you’re deluged with skills and it’s not clear what to pick or how to use the skills. There are two different skill bars on the screen, and I couldn’t figure out how into which bar a skill or item should go; this was important because it appeared that one bar was supposed to be used in combat and the other not.

I also learned, when going through some web sites in preparation for this review, that you should set up an allocation pattern for how your experience points (XP) are shared between the skills you develop. By default, your XP are evenly shared between all the attributes and skills your character possesses. If you don’t know about the reallocation (there was nothing about this in the interminable tutorial panels thrust on your screen), then your warrior could be wasting XP into their intellect instead of putting all the points into strength.

Crafting also starts immediately, with craft materials being the first thing you find in the landscape or dropped by enemies. What do you do with them? Which are useful to anything you might do? I never knew, because I never was able to craft any items and/or get any recipes. In WoW, crafting is introduced gradually; in SotA I had no idea if I should save the items in my limited inventory space (in SotA the limit is by weight rather than WoW’s bag slots) or sell them.

Even basic world interactions could be confusing. At one point I saw a fellow player character whose health bar wasn’t full. I thought I should do a good deed and use my healing spell on him. I clicked on his avatar, clicked the icon for my healing spell… and healed my character, not his. How do you cast beneficial spells on other characters in SotA? I never learned, but it’s not the simple method that’s used in WoW.

Another example: I was in a camp of humans, and clicked on one of the non-player soldiers to see if he had any dialog. Instead, that click was interpreted as an attack and the soldier started hacking at my character. There was no change in the mouse shape or any form of reaction indicators (as there is in WoW) to let me know that the soldier was hostile. Since he was five levels higher than I was, I would have been killed except that a fellow player decided to help me. It was a near thing, but we defeated the soldier.

Afterwards, I tried to thank that other player. I couldn’t, because even as simple a thing as a “say” command wasn’t obvious.

Even combat in the game wasn’t obvious. My memory is getting hazy, but there didn’t seem to be any “auto-attack” and you had to keep pressing a key to swing your weapon. Spells had long cooldowns (at least for my low-level character). I typically won each combat, but it took a long time.

All of these interface issues and other game elements are explained in various SotA web sites and forums, and I looked at some of them. As I noted above, it was a lot of information to absorb just to start a character. I like the open-ended skill sets and the potential for crafting, but the complexity of the initial decisions and limited carrying capacity at the start of the game was off-putting.

In WoW, you can create a character with a few keypresses, watch a short lore intro, and start questing within five minutes. The initial quests teach you the basics: how to sell useless items, for example. You don’t have to make any decisions about developing your character until you’ve reached tenth level, by which time you’ve been exposed to enough that you’ll know if you’ll like playing the game.

I know that SotA is much, much bigger than just the starting area. Promotional material talks about cities, dungeons, great events, customized housing, and so forth. But I have no desire to see any of it.

Lord British, if you want me to play Shroud of the Avatar, you have to start out stronger than this.

Economix: Why people vote against their interests

About a year ago, I posted my review of Economix, a graphic book that provides an overview of economic theory and practice through to about 2011. The author, Michael Goodwin, working with the artist Dan E. Burr, has occasionally posted additional comics on his website on topics like Obamacare and Net Neutrality.

Recently, Goodwin and Burr have created a 2018-era epilogue for Economix on why people vote for Trump and Brexit; that is, why they vote against their own interests. I think it’s well worth a look.

Aside: To my intense surprise, I see that there’s a short quote from my review on the Economix blurb page. I feel both honored and unqualified.

The shipping is done!

The last remaining boxes of Isaac’s papers are out of my apartment. They’re on their way to the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Religious Studies Collection.

I used to think that the stuff Phaedra Bonewits and I were sending to UCSB was just being warehoused somewhere. If you click on the above link, you’ll see I was wrong. In an e-mail sent to us by David Gartrell, Manuscripts Curator and Religious Studies Librarian of the UC Santa Barbara Library, he said “…each box I received was opened with appreciation, and often delight.”

When Isaac passed away, he left behind piles of papers packed into several boxes that were labeled “to be sorted.” Finally they were, but by Phae, David, and me.

Isaac, I wish you were still around to do this sorting. Since you’re not, rest assured that the process is in good hands.

Now, if you could just tell me the name of that Creole woman who introduced you to magic…

The scanning is done!

After working on Isaac Bonewits’ biography on-and-off for eight years (mostly off), I’ve finally completed one of my key tasks: To scan in all his files and papers. (The exception is if Phaedra Bonewits sends me any more boxes of Isaac’s old material.)

So what’s next?

  • Send all the remaining physical files, papers, and calendars to the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has already accepted the bulk of Isaac’s old papers to be kept in their Religious Studies section. There is a minor temptation to keep some of it; what if I have to look up something that wasn’t scanned properly? But if my goal is to get the biography written, I have to draw some lines in the sand. Getting the stuff out of my apartment means I don’t have the excuse of re-scanning everything.

    Maybe I’ll regret this later. I already regret not scanning some of the photographs I already sent in at high enough resolution to potentially be used as a book cover. So be it. I have to move forward.

    Side note: Check if UCSB will still accept the material. It’s been five years since I last sent them anything. Their policies may have changed.

  • Get the last remaining interviews: Joan Carruth, Carolyn Clark, and at least one member of the musical group Real Magic. If you know one the first two, please feel free to ease me into an introduction.

    After that, the interviews are done.

    There are more people I’d like to interview, but they belong to one of the following groups:

    • They’ve passed on; e.g., Shenain Bell; Robin Goodfellow.
    • They’ve declined to be interviewed; e.g., Z Budapest; Yvonne Frost; Isaac’s sisters and mother.
    • They’ve set requirements for an interview that I can’t meet; e.g., Linda VonBraskat-Crowe.
    • I flubbed the intro and they’ve ghosted me; e.g., Diane Paxson.

    There are other people I might interview. But at some point I have to say STOP and move on to the next task. I may be missing something by not interviewing Philip Carr-Gomm, Bill Heidrick, or Bill Kates. Again, I have to say “no regerts” and go forward.

  • Coding documents: At one point I hoped to code all of Isaac’s files. After scanning so many, I realize that this task would simply take too long and much of that time would be wasted.

    In Witchfather, Philip Heselton was able to track all of Gerald Gardner’s travels by examining documents, hotel registries, and the like. But I can’t do the same with Isaac, even if I have lists of festivals in documents, flyers, calendars, and so on. For one thing, I can’t tell if he wasn’t able to make a given event.

    More importantly, I have to make a choice as a biographer as to what’s worth including. Heselton made his choices, and I have to make mine. My decision is that I don’t need to track all his travel, his finances, his correspondence, etc.

    I’ve already coded roughly 40% of the scanned documents over the past eight years. For the rest, I’ll glance at it, see if it seems relevant to a biography, and code it if it does. Again, there may be much that I will miss, but “no regerts”.

    In particular, I made the decision a couple of years ago that I’m trying to be an Isaac Bonewits biographer. I am not trying to be an Isaac Bonewits scholar. I’ll leave that task to others; the documents and scans will be around for them to go over. Perhaps someone will one day get their Ph.D. in Bonewitsology, but that person cannot be me. The detailed coding and interpretation of Isaac’s papers I’ll leave to them.

  • I’ve trimmed down the overall task of preparing Isaac’s biography as time has gone by. At one point I hoped to create an oral history of his life from the interviews; that would require additional releases and forms that I’ve chosen not to obtains. I hoped to read Isaac’s books again; I may just skim them. I hoped to produce the definitive work on Isaac’s life; now I’m aiming for a work, not the work.

    Isaac, Isaac, Isaac. Why couldn’t you have led a duller life?

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

It’s probably unfair for me to review Shadow of the Tomb Raider so soon after Spider-Man. My viewpoint is skewed because Spider-Man is clearly the better game. It’s also unfair because I’m not a professional videogame reviewer, though I feel compelled to write reviews; I feel that one game is better than the other, but I struggle to explain why I feel that way.

I’ll start with Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s positive qualities: The graphics are beautiful and lush. The jungles, rain forests, and tombs are rendered in detail. When you activate Lara Croft’s survival instincts or have her take a perception potion, you can make out the highlighted features without the effects obscuring object features.

Given my initial criticism of Spider-Man, I particularly like that the difficulty level of Shadow of the Tomb Raider can be set separately for combat, exploration, and puzzles. Of course, I set them all to ‘easy’, and I needed it. Unlike Spider-Man, the Easy difficulty in Shadow of the Tomb Raider apparently adjusts the timing windows for various actions so I could do most of Lara Croft’s famous platform antics, and when I failed I usually could get through things with only a couple of repeats.

The gameplay: If you’ve played the previous two Lara Croft games since its 2013 reboot, Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s more of the same: tombs to raid, crypts to plunder, puzzles to solve, collectibles for gear or achievements, bad guys to fight. Here’s where my powers of description fail me: overall, the gameplay doesn’t feel as rewarding as it did in the previous games. When I finished Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s main story, I wanted to go back and complete all the puzzles and collectibles I’d missed along the way. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, once the story was finished, I was done; I didn’t feel there was any joy to be had by continuing the game.

The story: Basically, it’s the usual. Lara follows clues left behind by ancient monuments that take her to South America, battling the forces of Trinity, looking for a mystical artifact that can save or destroy the world. Unlike the previous two Lara Croft, I didn’t see that there was much of a character arc for Lara; she starts out a cold-stone killer and stays that way throughout the game. There are some emotional beats, but at this point in the series they feel stale, like seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents gunned down in the alley yet again.

Voice acting: Here’s is where Shadow of the Tomb Raider definitely falls behind Spider-Man. I know that voice acting for a massive videogame like this is a tough job; there are hundreds if not thousands of lines to be recorded, including endless descriptions for every collectible. But the Spider-Man voice actors make it all sound fresh and engaging. The voice actors in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, especially Camilla Luddington as Lara Croft, sound tired and flat by comparison. Only during the cut scenes do the voices even have a semblance of life.

The exception is the main villain, but he has fewer lines since he speaks only during the cinematic intervals. The actor Carlos Leal, playing the leader of Trinity, sounds like he’s having fun being Lara’s antagonist.

If you’re a fan of the Tomb Raider series, the game does fill out the trilogy and brings Lara Croft to the point she was in the first game from the 90s. It’s certainly worth playing for that reason. But if the story of Lara Croft doesn’t compel you, and you have a PS4, I’d recommend Spider-Man instead.

Edit: I forgot to make this point in my original review: It’s probably my imagination, but the latest computer model of Lara Croft looks a little more breast-and-butt heavy compared to the two earlier games. It’s as if they were pandering to the male audience as they did in the 1990s version.