Lost and Found and What’s Next

A couple of days ago, Christopher Chase sent me some pages from an old issue of The Crone Papers that mentioned Isaac Bonewits. (Christopher, brother to Sabrina Chase of Blue Star, is on the faculty of the Philosophy and Religious Study Department at Iowa State University.) After I downloaded the pages, I went through my usual practice of placing the pages in a Dropbox directory, coding the pages, and storing the codes in Zotero.

I took a glance at another directory I had on Dropbox that contained Isaac’s documents that I had not yet coded… and found the directory almost empty. I searched the hard drive of my computer, and those files weren’t anywhere on my hard drive. I searched my backups on Apple’s Time Machine, Dropbox, and Backblaze. They weren’t on the backups either. Three levels on backups, and none of them had the missing files.

What happened? In reverse chronological order:

  • When I set up Backblaze, I found that I’d deliberately omitted all my Dropbox directories from the off-line backup. I probably felt having two offline backups of the same files was not necessary. (Pro tip: I was wrong.)
  • Periodically, my Time Machine disk drive fills up in a such a way that it requires a fresh backup from scratch. This last happened at the beginning of May 2019. Since I suspect that these files disappeared before then, they weren’t on the Time Machine backup.
  • Dropbox only keeps deleted files for 30 days.
  • In addition to off-line backup, I use Dropbox to synchronize a suite of files and directories between three computers: my home computer, my work computer, and a laptop. The laptop is primarily used for the Science-on-Hudson talks, but I also use it for when I go on trips.

    When I was in the hospital at the end of December 2018, one of my work colleagues brought the laptop to me so I could watch movies to pass the time. But while Nyack Hospital offers excellent medical care, their wi-fi stinks. I struggled with turning off the Dropbox synchronization for the laptop to save on bandwidth and disk space.

    What I suspect happened, though I will never know for sure, is that somewhere in that process the flaky wi-fi connection made Dropbox interpret “do not sync this directory” as “this directory has been deleted”. This would have been propagated to all my other computers running Dropbox.

As I write this, I’ve not yet had the chance to inspect my work computers. It may be that the files are there in their separate Time Machine backups. However, I strongly doubt it.

What have I lost? As far as I can tell, I’ve lost most of the contents of two directories related to Isaac’s biography: the documents I had not yet coded; files I copied from Isaac’s old laptops and had not yet even started to look at.

The most important directories were unaffected by this: the files I had already coded, which to some extent were of the greatest interest to me; the recordings of the roughly 50 hours of interviews I’ve done so far.

Is the material really, truly lost? The answer is no, on two levels.

  • The originals are in the Religious Studies Archives of the University of California at Santa Barbara. They’re available to anyone willing to make the trip. For medical and practical reasons, I can’t make that trip. But if someone is willing to be an Isaac Bonewits scholar, it’s all still there.
  • I used two devices to scan Isaac’s files. One was my scanner at home, a low-end consumer device that could only scan one page at a time. The other was a scanner at work, which was fast and could scan piles of 8 1/2″x11″ paper placed in its document feeder.

    I also scanned some files into Adobe Creative Cloud using my phone, but these were relatively unimportant documents that Phaedra sent me a couple of years after my main scanning efforts. I can live without copies of Isaac’s old debts and bills.

    The work scanner delivered its scans to me via email. I checked last night, and I kept all those emails. So anything I scanned at work is, in principle, still retrievable.

Why “in principle”? The work scanner labeled the files it sent to me with coded names like “20110501163942716.pdf”. I took those files, used tools like PDFPen for OCR, and extracted/moved pages into files and folders with appropriate names. It took me hours to do this work, though it didn’t seem like much at the time because I worked on relatively few files after each scanning session. To do it all over again seems like a Sisyphean task.

Now comes the big question: How much did I really lose when it comes to the actual biography?

In a previous blog post, I addressed some issues associated with reducing the scope of this project. Maybe losing those files could be a positive thing. I’ve already have a lot of material. I have 50 hours of interviews; Jimahl di Fiosa wrote a biography of Alex Sanders based on less material than that. When I think about the material I had not yet tagged, I don’t remember most of it except for a big folder on Isaac’s EMS, and I only needed that for dates and such.

I still have questions about Isaac’s life that I would want the biography to address: Who was the Creole woman who introduced the Christian-raised Isaac to magic? Why was he attracted to Druidry over Wicca? Why did he found the ADF? What were the issues he faced as ArchDruid that caused him to resign? But if I don’t have the answer after interviewing Isaac’s spouses, what makes me think that some mysterious key to his life lurks within the files that I had not coded?

So I’ll set a limit: One more interview, with a member of the musical group Real Magic. If I’m able to recover the lost files, be ruthless: Only code those files that look critical. Then listen to the interviews and take notes of quotable sections. Use the already-coded material as reference.

Then do what Deborah Lipp has encouraged me to do for the past few years: Just write the damn thing already.

It won’t be the work of scholarship that I originally hoped for. But the first biography of Gerald Gardner wasn’t a scholarly work either. Let those with the credentials, the will, and the means become Isaac Bonewits scholars. Who knows? Maybe what I write will inspire them.

Final Fantasy X

Disclaimer: I did not play this game to the end, for reasons discussed below. This review is based on what I experienced until I decided to quit playing it.

A few months ago, I posted my review of Final Fantasy XV. I was still looking for something to occupy my time during my convalescence. A friend of mine recommended Final Fantasy X on the basis of its story. I’ll start with my immediate impressions.

It must be said: This is a clunky game. It’s a port of a game published in 2001 to modern gaming systems. It was strange to play a game for which the right knob on my PS4 controller did almost nothing at all. There’s no way to change camera angles; you take the view the game gives you. Switching between targets during combat is not intuitive.

Since it is an old game, I’m willing to let that slide.

In my FFXV review, I made a big deal about the blatant sexism of the character of Cindy. In FFX many of the female characters show a lot of skin, but so do the male characters so I’ll let that part slide as well.

However, I’m not going to give a pass to the character of Lulu. She’s modestly dressed compared to most of the other female characters, except for exposed cleavage. The issue I have is the game’s focus on that cleavage: many of the cutscenes have the camera pointed at Lulu’s chest, cropping out her face; Lulu’s “victory dance” at the end of combat has her flaunting her cleavage at the camera.

Lulu is a popular subject for fan costuming, so I may be overreacting; if female fans have no problem with Lulu, I probably shouldn’t either. Still, it bothered me that one of the most powerful characters in the game is presented as a subject for adolescent ogling.

An observation instead of a criticism: I was startled to see how many of the game elements of FFXV were also present in FFX: chocobos; potions names and effects; victory music at the end of combat. It made it clear that the Final Fantasy series has traditions of its own.

Let’s get to the game itself. You get to choose your viewpoint character’s name; the default is “Tidus” but I picked “Artax” (which in retrospect was a mistake). Tidus is a successful Blitzball player in the city of Zanarkand. After a confusing introduction that reminded me a bit of Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2, you find yourself 1000 years in the future. Through a few info dumps, you learn that you’re part of a team of characters whose goal is to defeat the monstrous creature Sin.

There are open-world elements to FFX, but basically it’s a linear story from your arrival in the land of Spira to the final confrontation with Sin. As you engage in combats you gain skills and stats, as is typical games of this genre.

This leads to my first frustration with the game: the Sphere Grid. Instead of the standard skill trees in similar games, the abilities and improvements for your character are unlocked by navigating a visually confusing circular display. As you win combats, you gain different kinds of spheres. You navigate between nodes on this display by gaining “sphere levels”; you activate the nodes by using special spheres dropped by most of the monsters you fight.

Here’s a much better explanation of the system:
https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Sphere_Grid

Even after I understood how to use the Sphere Grid, I had two problems with it. The first is that it was all too easy to “lose your way” among the concentric circles. This cause me to waste sphere levels as I tried to navigate a character’s location on the grid, only to find out that I headed in the wrong direction.

The second problem is that sections of the sphere grid, with more powerful abilities or opportunities to navigate to other characters’ skill sets, are blocked off by “key spheres”. These are extremely rare and do not drop randomly. By the time I stopped playing FFX, I had activated all the characters’ spheres within their areas of the sphere grid. Without the necessary key spheres, I could not improve them further (not even basic stats like hit points). I accumulated sphere levels with no way to spend them.

Another issue I had with FFX was with the difficulty of the late-game boss combat. I played the game in Easy mode (as always), but there are increasingly more combats as you continue with the game that, realistically, can only be won by consulting a hint guide or by failing a lot until you learn the appropriate strategy.

The latter sounds acceptable; after all, someone must have done this before writing a hint guide in the first place. The problem is that the game punishes failure. If you lose a combat, the game is over. You can always restore to the last save point, and there are save points before every major boss combat. But restoring a game forces you to watch a three-minute unskippable cinematic before you can play again.

This means that, without a hint guide, late-game combat becomes “glasschewing”: You lose, spend minutes restoring the game state, fight the boss to the same point as before (which can take several minutes on its own), only to wipe again if you miss some important strategic concept for that battle.

When you reach a stage where only a hint guide can move you forward, you’re not really playing the game anymore; the hint guide is. That’s when I lose interest. Now that I think of it, that’s when I stopped playing FFXV, when I could only progress using hint guides.

But in FFXV, the Uncharted series, the Tomb Raider series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, even God of War, I didn’t need a hint guide to get to the end of the story. I only needed guides for the optional content, though I may not have realized it at the time. FFX required me to have hints to get to the end of the game’s story.

What of that story? My friend was right to say that FFX’s story is better than FFXV’s, without question. The problem is that while the story is better, the writing is awful. In the cutscenes, characters say the same thing over and over again, they repeatedly state plot points that are painfully obvious even to players unfamiliar to any of the conventions of the fantasy genre, and they whine incessantly and repeatedly about the same issues. I’ll give the game credit: both the male and female characters do the same amount of whining.

Perhaps this dialog sounds better in the original Japanese. Or perhaps it’s pitched to a very young audience. I discount the latter, because of the difficulty of the late-state combat and confusion of the Sphere Grid; I don’t think six-year-olds could deal with those game elements.

Or perhaps I’m underestimating six-year-olds. It would not be the first time!

Final (fantasy) verdict: Final Fantasy X served its purpose, to occupy my time during long stretches when I couldn’t move from my easy chair. At $15, it was priced reasonably for a time-waster. But I can’t give the game an enthusiastic recommendation.

Sometime in the next several months Square Enix will release a remake of Final Fantasy VII. Hopefully by then I won’t need time-wasters. Unless the reviews are glowing beyond measure, I don’t plan to visit the Final Fantasy series again.