When Backups Fail

Whenever someone tells me, either personally or professionally, that they’re getting a new computer, my first words are “What about backup?” I liked to think that I took my own advice and that I was well-protected against hard drive failure. This is the story of how I was wrong.

Almost.

The bold beginning

Let’s start with my backup arrangement that I used for the past year, ever since I had a major file loss.

Slide1

Here’s the breakdown of that picture:

  • Macintosh HD – a 3TB Fusion Drive (combined solid-state drive (SSD) and hard drive); the main hard drive of my iMac.
  • Data – a 3TB hard drive inside an Apple Airport Express; my Time Machine backup.
  • Dropbox – a cloud service remote backup for my /Users/seligman/Dropbox folder.
  • Backblaze – a second cloud service remote backup of Macintosh HD.

Three layers of backup coupled with fast SSDHD (solid-state drive/hard drive). What could go wrong?

Signs of trouble

Occasionally over the past few years I’d get a warning from Time Machine that the Data drive in the Time Capsule needed to be erased. I didn’t think much about it, because of the way Time Machine works: It duplicates the contents of the main drive, and saves any replaced files for as long as it can. But if the size of a file it wants to copy is greater than the amount of free space remaining on Time Machine, the backup process can get into trouble. As I used up more space on the main Macintosh HD drive, there was less space on the Time Machine backup to work with.

At this point, you may ask: The main drive was 3TB, as was the Time Machine backup. 3TB is a lot of storage for a personal computer. What was taking up so much space, with such large files?

Answer:

Disc Collection

In other words, most of it consisted of digital media files from the DVDs and Blu-Rays I collected over the past twenty years. Not shown is a massive collection of CDs going back forty years (which I keep in an otherwise-unused huge drawer at work). Also not shown are digital media that I downloaded over the years, mostly purchased via iTunes.

The biggest remaining chunks are video files associated with creating YouTube clips for the Nevis Labs channel.

Much of it, at least in theory, I could recreate. In practice, it would mean a massive amount of effort. Spread over decades, it wasn’t much. To build it all up again seemed to painful to contemplate.

In 2019, I got at least two warnings about needing to rebuild the Time Machine drive. I clicked on the “go ahead” button and let Time Machine do its thing; that’s supposed to be the big advantage of Time Machine over other backup methods.

It occurred to me that this might mean the Time Machine hard drive was failing. I ran what tests I could; a drive in an Apple Airport Express is not directly visible to programs like Disk Utility. But those tests said that the drive was fine.

Still, I had a notion in the back of my mind that the Airport Express drive was 8-10 years old and it might be time to replace it. I had a thought about using an external drive instead, but I didn’t follow up on it… then.

The last time I received a warning that the Time Machine drive needed to be erased and rebuilt was in December of 2019. I automatically clicked “go ahead” and went blithely along.

Main drive failure

Early in January 2020 my iMac became slow and unresponsive. If I clicked on some user widget on the screen, it might take up to a minute to respond. It was a big shift from the usual fast speed from just a couple of weeks before.

At first I thought this was a font issue. The least time I saw a sudden slowdown of my Mac it turned out to be fonts that were the problem. At that time, about ten years ago, I used FontExplorer X Pro to deal with them. When I looked this time, I saw that I had more than a thousand fonts installed.

Of course, I don’t need a thousand fonts; I’m not a graphics designer. These fonts were the accumulation of a couple of decades of software installs: multiple version of Microsoft Office, graphics programs, Adobe products, and so forth.

So I tried to remove fonts that I didn’t need. It made things worse than before; did you know that a Mac system won’t function unless all its Arabic fonts are installed? I had to reinstall the OS twice to recover… and still everything was slow.

I checked my memory use, and according to Activity Monitor I had plenty of free RAM.

I finally decided to go to my area of expertise. I started to use the Terminal instead of fancy graphics tools to solve the problem. You already know it turned out to be a hard drive problem. Specifically, it was the SSD portion of the Fusion Drive.

Diagnosis

Here are the technical details of how I came to this conclusion. If you don’t like to deal with sysadmin stuff, skip this section.

First, I wanted to check how much memory I was using. The command-line program for this in Mac OS X Darwin is vm_stat. Here’s the result on my iMac just now, after the problem was solved:

# vm_stat
Mach Virtual Memory Statistics: (page size of 4096 bytes)
Pages free:                              114622.
Pages active:                           1039899.
Pages inactive:                         1083290.
Pages speculative:                        14319.
Pages throttled:                              0.
Pages wired down:                        652636.
Pages purgeable:                          22198.
"Translation faults":                 782461912.
Pages copy-on-write:                    6341973.
Pages zero filled:                    457651989.
Pages reactivated:                     17660655.
Pages purged:                           1912200.
File-backed pages:                       510632.
Anonymous pages:                        1626876.
Pages stored in compressor:             3224421.
Pages occupied by compressor:           1289005.
Decompressions:                        13590655.
Compressions:                          19332473.
Pageins:                              484431874.
Pageouts:                                136862.
Swapins:                                      0.
Swapouts:                                     0.

Except that, when I executed this command on my busted Mac, the last two values (“swapins” and “swapouts”) were 9-digit numbers. That works out to roughly about a TB of memory swapped in and out.

Modern operating systems structure their memory in “pages”, chunks of memory that are handled as a unit. When all the physical chunks of memory in the computer are used up, pages are written out to disk. My iMac has 16GB RAM, so the number of pages to swap in and out should be zero, or at least very low. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen those numbers non-zero is that one time I described above.

What was swapping all those memory pages in and out doing to my Fusion Drive? I used smartmontools to find this out. (This utility is part of standard UNIX, but it’s not part of the normal Mac or Windows OS. I strongly recommend installing it.) When I use it on the SSD part of the Fusion Drive, there’s a lot of output that ends in this:

/usr/local/sbin/smartctl -a /dev/disk0 -s on
[...]
Vendor Specific SMART Attributes with Thresholds:
ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate     0x000f   100   100   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x000f   100   100   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       9027
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       98098
169 Unknown_Apple_Attrib    0x0022   100   100   010    Old_age   Always       -       751793342176
173 Wear_Leveling_Count     0x0022   148   148   100    Old_age   Always       -       5871324366268
174 Host_Reads_MiB          0x0030   100   100   000    Old_age   Offline      -       131266311
175 Host_Writes_MiB         0x0030   100   100   000    Old_age   Offline      -       84080554
192 Power-Off_Retract_Count 0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       96
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0022   062   062   000    Old_age   Always       -       38 (Min/Max 21/88)
197 Current_Pending_Sector  0x0032   000   000   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
199 UDMA_CRC_Error_Count    0x003e   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
244 Unknown_Attribute       0x0002   000   000   000    Old_age   Always       -       0

I identified which drive (the /dev/disk0 in the command line) by using the Terminal command diskutil list.

Compare the above result with the similar output on the SSD in my SSDHD on my computer at work:

ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x0033   099   099   010    Pre-fail  Always       -       2
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   088   088   000    Old_age   Always       -       58608
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       320
177 Wear_Leveling_Count     0x0013   092   092   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       430
179 Used_Rsvd_Blk_Cnt_Tot   0x0013   099   099   010    Pre-fail  Always       -       2
181 Program_Fail_Cnt_Total  0x0032   100   100   010    Old_age   Always       -       0
182 Erase_Fail_Count_Total  0x0032   100   100   010    Old_age   Always       -       0
183 Runtime_Bad_Block       0x0013   099   099   010    Pre-fail  Always       -       2
187 Uncorrectable_Error_Cnt 0x0032   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       3290
190 Airflow_Temperature_Cel 0x0032   066   060   000    Old_age   Always       -       34
195 ECC_Error_Rate          0x001a   199   199   000    Old_age   Always       -       3290
199 CRC_Error_Count         0x003e   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
235 POR_Recovery_Count      0x0012   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       44
241 Total_LBAs_Written      0x0032   099   099   000    Old_age   Always       -       117217270543

The most obvious thing to note is that drives from different manufacturers can return different attributes.

Fortunately, both of these SSDs return the amount of data written to the drive, though in different units. The SSD on my iMac has the values:

174 Host_Reads_MiB  =   131266311
175 Host_Writes_MiB =    84080554

The unit “MiB” (which I believe is pronounced “mibibyte”) refers to exactly 1,000,000 bytes, as opposed to a MB (megabyte) which is 1024*1024*1024 bytes. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s sufficient to treat both these units as the same.

So during the seven years I used the SSD in the Fusion Drive, the OS read 131TB and wrote 84TB. That latter number seemed a bit high to me. It’s a 3TB drive, so that value says I wrote to the drive 44 times its total size. Considering that I never did much serious video editing or any other activity with a lot of output, it seemed like something was wrong.

My SSD at work reports the total written in “LBAs” (LBA = Logical Block Address), which are 512 byte sectors. So we have:

241 Total_LBAs_Written =       117217270543

This comes to about 54.5 TB over roughly the same seven-year period. This is more plausible, since over the past five years I’ve done a lot of video downloads, conversions, and editing.

The real kicker is the “wear leveling” parameter. A given sector of an SSD can only be written to a finite number of times. To prevent any given sector from wearing out, the hardware in the SSD automatically distributes sector writes across the entire range of the SSD. A typical SSD, even after many years of use, might have a wear level down to 90%-95% range. If an SSD gets to 50%, it’s worn out and needs to be replaced.

For my SSD in the Fusion Drive at home, I have:

173 Wear_Leveling_Count =   148

For the one at work:

177 Wear_Leveling_Count =   092

Again, for different manufacturers the way this value is displayed can vary. If the value is greater than 100, then you have to subtract 100 to get the leveling as a percent. So the SSD at home is at a 48% wear level, while the one at work is at an expected 92% wear level.

Something wore out the SSD on my iMac. That’s why the Fusion Drive was so slow. I’m not going to copy-n-paste the values, but you can see that the power-on hours for the home SSD is much lower than that of the work SSD, further adding to the conclusion that something anomalous happened with my home computer.

That’s the analysis of the SSD part of the Fusion Drive. What about the hard drive part?

For my computer at home:

ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate     0x000f   090   074   006    Pre-fail  Always       -       227218413
  3 Spin_Up_Time            0x0003   095   094   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  4 Start_Stop_Count        0x0032   037   037   020    Old_age   Always       -       65535
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x0033   074   051   036    Pre-fail  Always       -       32432
  7 Seek_Error_Rate         0x000f   056   056   030    Pre-fail  Always       -       1808362289149
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   061   061   000    Old_age   Always       -       34995
 10 Spin_Retry_Count        0x0013   100   100   097    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   057   037   020    Old_age   Always       -       44830
184 End-to-End_Error        0x0032   100   100   099    Old_age   Always       -       0
187 Reported_Uncorrect      0x0032   001   001   000    Old_age   Always       -       2138
188 Command_Timeout         0x0032   100   036   000    Old_age   Always       -       332 332 407
189 High_Fly_Writes         0x003a   087   087   000    Old_age   Always       -       13
190 Airflow_Temperature_Cel 0x0022   049   043   045    Old_age   Always   In_the_past 51 (Min/Max 43/52 #5)
191 G-Sense_Error_Rate      0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
192 Power-Off_Retract_Count 0x0032   098   098   000    Old_age   Always       -       5029
193 Load_Cycle_Count        0x0032   045   045   000    Old_age   Always       -       110367
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0022   051   057   000    Old_age   Always       -       51 (0 13 0 0 0)
197 Current_Pending_Sector  0x0012   001   001   000    Old_age   Always       -       32712
198 Offline_Uncorrectable   0x0010   001   001   000    Old_age   Offline      -       32712
199 UDMA_CRC_Error_Count    0x003e   200   200   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
240 Head_Flying_Hours       0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       39388h+11m+48.323s
241 Total_LBAs_Written      0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       46269392914
242 Total_LBAs_Read         0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       163923486796

What I’ve not shown is a bunch of error messages from smartctl that basically said there was an error in reading some of the parameters.

Other things to note:

  • Total_LBAs_Written = 46269392914 means that 21.5 TB were written to the hard drive. Compare that with 84 TB written to the SSD. The SSD was definitely bearing the brunt of sector refreshes.
  • Offline_Uncorrectable = 32712 means the drive is definitely going bad. Either the drive has 32712 bad sectors, or the count is wonky because it’s counting backwards from 32767. It’s bad either way.

I won’t bore you (at least, not more than you are already) with the disk report on my computer at work, partly because its list of attributes doesn’t point to any direct problems with the drive.

It’s worth noting that if Apple’s utilities included some kind of SMART test and warning, I would have known there was a problem weeks or months ago. Instead, I had to find out about these problems the hard way.

What caused this? I’ll never know for sure. Here’s my guess:

  • Some process or program went wonky on my iMac. Possibly this was related to problems in hard drive portion of the Fusion Drive.
  • That process started consuming massive amounts of RAM. It did so in such a way that the Activity Monitor couldn’t detect it, but vm_stat could.
  • The memory use overflowed the RAM and memory pages started being swapped out to disk. In this case, this was the Fusion Drive.
  • The excess memory use just kept on growing, memory pages kept being written to the Fusion Drive, and hence to the SSD.
  • This kept up through reboots of the computer and upgrades of the operating system.
  • Finally, the various sectors of the SSD had been accessed so frequently that the wear level got extremely low. That made the effective speed of the system glacially slow.
  • Once the SSD wore out, there was nothing I could do to restore it, except for completely replacing the drive. We’ll get to that below.

The last gasp of a dying drive

I could still work on my iMac, after a fashion. Right after (yet another) OS reinstall or a reboot, the system would respond just well enough to run Terminal, Thunderbird, and (maybe) Firefox. But it was becoming clear, especially after running the diagnostics I describe above, that a new hard drive was in my future.

The straw that broke the camel’s back and caused me to take action was a dialog box that popped up on my screen: “studentd quit unexpectedly”. I didn’t know what that was and didn’t care, so I hit the “OK” button (or whatever acknowledgement there was). Seconds later it showed up again. And again. And again.

It didn’t matter how many times I acknowledged that studentd had quit. The dialog box would helpfully inform me of studentd’s non-functioning status.

I looked up studentd. It had to do with an Apple service called Classroom. I never used this service, didn’t want it, didn’t need it. But the arrangement of Apple’s daemon services was such that this process always automatically launched and was automatically rerun if it wasn’t running, even if it wasn’t needed.

Whatever studentd was supposed to do, it was clear that my failing Fusion Drive wouldn’t let it run anymore. Once again I reinstalled the OS, but I still kept getting the “studentd quit unexpectedly” dialog. I finally just left the dialog box on my screen unacknowledged.

It was time for an action plan.

I thought I had a backup. Does that count?

My first idea was to get the hard drive in my iMac replaced. My Applecare Plus warranty had long since expired, so my guesstimate was this would cost $500-$600, given the labor involved and the premium prices Apple charges for its hard drives. Also, Apple would only replace the Fusion Drive with the same model the iMac originally came with; if I wanted to contemplate a 4TB SSD I’d be out of luck.

I contacted a friend of mine who used to work at the Apple Genius Bar. He suggested an alternative: Use an external drive and boot from it instead. That way, I could be in control of the drives I used. If I ever felt the need to purchase a new iMac, I could plug the external drive into the new computer and not worry about copying or reconfiguring anything. (The only issue is whether a new Mac could run Mac OS 10.14 Mojave, since I don’t want to upgrade to the latest, Catalina; I may write another blog post someday about this.)

Either approach required me to restore from backup. So I examine my options:

  • I had a Dropbox backup, but it only included files in my ~/Dropbox folder. My media files were not part of it. Neither were some personal files that I badly wanted to preserve.
  • The Backblaze backup was current as of a few days prior to the massive drive slowdown. It was only then I discovered that Backblaze only copies a Mac’s /Users directory; the files in /Library and /Applications are not included, for example. This lack of knowledge was my fault for not reading the Backblaze web site carefully enough.
  • The Time Machine backup. It must be complete by now, right?

When I checked the status of my Time Machine backup, I saw it was still not complete. Remember how I refreshed my Time Machine backup in December of 2019? Now it was January 2020, with a failing hard drive. As I watched Time Machine’s progress, I saw it would take at least 10 days to finish.

Time to get practical:

  • I knew I’d need some kind of complete backup. So optimize completing the Time Machine backup.
  • To that end, I rebooted my iMac in Safe Mode, to suppress any background processes that were accessing the Macintosh HD drive and slowing things down. In particular, Dropbox and Backblaze were running at glacial speeds that would take years to complete, and Adobe Creative Suite kept attempting to repair itself unsuccessfully.
  • When in Safe Mode, I still got the repeated “studentd quit unexpectedly” dialog. A bit of research showed that the following Terminal command would prevent the execution of studentd entirely:
    sudo mv /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.macos.studentd.plist \
            /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.macos.studentd.plist.bak
    

    … and reboot to Safe Mode again.

  • Turn off desktop background and screen savers. There was no reason to waste the CPU cycles or cause the system to access the hard drive more than necessary.
  • Make sure Spotlight was off, again to minimize any drive access.
  • Order the complete restore from Backblaze. Since that was about 2TB of files, they had to send me a USB drive. They charged me $189 to create the drive’s contents and ship it to me, but that was refundable if I sent the drive back to them.
  • Preserve my personal files:
    mv ~/Documents ~/Dropbox/
    ln -sf ~/Dropbox/Documents ~/Documents
    (cd ~/Dropbox; tar -cf - ./Documents) | \
        ssh remote-computer "(cd ~/Dropbox; tar -xvf -)"
    

    The net effect of the above commands was to place my Documents directory into my Dropbox area, make sure that any program referring to something in ~/Documents would now find them in my Documents folder, and copy the Documents folder to a remote computer that was also running Dropbox. That gave me a copy of my personal files in my Dropbox area without having to run Dropbox on my failing computer; it would sync the Documents folder from the Dropbox process on my remote computer.

  • Renew my license for the latest version of Carbon Copy Cloner, since I planned to make more backups. As we’ll see below, CCC proved to be an even more useful tool than I planned.
  • At work, use Diskmaker X to make a Mojave USB-key installer. While I thought I might use it to reinstall the Mac OS on >Macintosh HD from external media, this also proved to be a more useful tool than I planned.
  • With permission, ask to borrow a laptop to take home so I could continue to work from home while my iMac focused on making the Time Machine backup.
  • Order 4TB hard drives and a two-drive disk enclosure. I’ll get into this below.
  • Now, with all background processes halted and nothing else to do, set my iMac in Safe Mode to copy from Macintosh HD to my Airport Express.

Here was my goal:

Slide2

Alpha would be my new main drive. Beta would be a nightly clone of Alpha made with CCC. Gamma would be my new Time Machine backup.

As I waited for this new hardware to arrive, I saw the Time Machine backup was running more quickly since there were no background processes accessing the slow Macintosh HD. It was going so fast that I cancelled the Backblaze restore drive after a couple of days, before it was shipped to me.

By this time the hardware arrived. I had an old OWC miniStack that I purchased in 2008. It could connect to a Mac using USB 3.0. I installed a 4TB drive into the miniStack, and used the laptop and that USB Mac OS installer to install Mojave on the drive. I named the drive Beta. I then set that hard drive aside, but it was comforting to know that I had a system drive I could potentially use to boot my iMac.

After four days, the Time Machine backup was scheduled to complete. I watched the progress, got to when the last MBs should have been copied… and it wouldn’t terminate. In the progress message of “Copying XXX MB of YYY MB”, both XXX and YYY would increment.

Researching the web showed a number of potential fixes to this problem, none of which worked for me. I found a trick to look at the time machine log:

printf '\e[3J' && log show --predicate 'subsystem == "com.apple.TimeMachine"' --info --last 6h | grep -F 'eMac' | grep -Fv 'etat' | awk -F']' '{print substr($0,1,19), $NF}' 

It seemed like the number of files to be backed up was monotonically increasing, even though the iMac was in Safe Mode and I wasn’t doing anything with it. Was this a problem with Macintosh HD or the Time Machine backup drive? Probably the former, based on what happened later.

So I did not have a single coherent backup of my hard drive.

Let’s try again

I installed a fresh 4TB drive into the miniStack, plugged it into my iMac, named it Gamma, and started a Time Machine backup onto it.

I calculated it would take 10-14 days to complete. I used the time to reorder the Backblaze USB drive again, just in case. It should have taken another five days to make, but they shipped it to me in two. I speculate that they never stopped creating the initial drive; perhaps they’ve grown used to fools like me changing their minds about the need for a remote drive.

I waited, watching the Time Machine progress onto Gamma. After about 10 days, it was almost at the end… then it went into the “Copying XXX MB of YYY MB” loop again.

I couldn’t make a finalized Time Machine backup at all.

The two-drive enclosure I purchased was an OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual with Thunderbolt 2. I put Alpha and Beta into the enclosure, installed Carbon Copy Cloner on Beta, and booted the iMac from Beta.

Wow! An iMac working at normal speed!

I used the Mac OS USB install drive to install an OS on Alpha, then as part of that process tried to initialize Alpha from the Time Machine backup. No go. I got the message that the Time Machine “could not be used.”

OK, Time Machine was no longer an answer. How about Carbon Copy Cloner? While running the OS on Beta, I ran CCC to clone from Macintosh HD to Alpha.

Again, no go. After about two days, CCC terminated due to too many read errors from the bad drive.

Backblaze to the rescue

So I couldn’t make a backup of all of Macintosh HD.

By this time the Backblaze restore USB drive had arrived, with everything from the /Users directory on down. So I set up another Carbon Copy Cloner task, but this one would copy everything except /Users from Macintosh HD to Alpha. That copy took only about 12 hours to run, 6 of which were just comparing the files on the two drives to only copy over the new files. There were some drive errors, but not enough to stop the process.

The CCC task ran to completion. I had the contents of /Library, /Applications, /opt, and so on copied. Then I copied /Users from the Backblaze drive to /Users on Alpha. At last, I had my complete hard drive.

Well, not quite…

When I first booted from Alpha, I got a repeated dialog box that stated macos needs to repair your library and required me to enter my password. As soon I hit “Use password…” and typed in my computer’s password, the dialog box would pop up again.

Eventually I ran the Mac OS USB installer again. That resolved the issue. Finally, I could reboot my computer into a working OS again.

And so the saga was over… NOT!

The reason why I went through the exercise of restoring all the non-/Users files is that I want to preserve all my applications and their settings. This mostly worked. A couple of apps gave me problems, but they were minor by comparison:

  • I had to completely reinstall Microsoft Office. Even so, there was something wonky associated with permissions to access the template files. I never use templates, but MS-Word insisted on displaying an error message anyway. Fortunately I found a fix for this problem.
  • Adobe Creative Suite insisted on being reinstalled. No big deal, since I use it infrequently. I just let it download in the background.
  • Time Machine, Spotlight, and Backblaze were giving me problems. For the first two, I saw they were trying to archive 6TB of files! I finally figured it out: These utilities were scanning and backing up Macintosh HD and Beta in addition to Alpha. I fixed that in System Preferences… mostly.

That last “mostly” was due to Backblaze, which made it hard to exclude Macintosh HD from its list of drives to back up. This makes sense in general; most users want backups of their main internal drives and Backblaze wanted to be a thorough backup. But aside from being unnecessary at this point, any attempt to access Macintosh HD would slow down the computer. In addition to Backblaze’s performance, this was evident in Open/Save dialogs that might have to scan all drives.

I lived with Macintosh HD‘s performance for a couple more weeks, just to make sure there weren’t any lingering files to copy. There weren’t, apart from some forgotten and unused podcast files that I mostly copied so I’d have a “complete” restore. Then I found a way to make sure that Macintosh HD wouldn’t even be mounted when I rebooted the computer:

Create the file /etc/fstab if it doesn’t already exist (you’ll have to use sudo), and edit it to add the following line:

LABEL=Macintosh\040HD none apfs rw,noauto

Now it’s as if Macintosh HD doesn’t exist. I could still mount it using Disk Utility if I had to, but so far I’ve never had to.

I mailed back the Backblaze USB drive. It had done its work admirably. As promised, I got the money refunded by Backblaze.

Are we done yet? Close, but not quite.

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual mini-review

I purchased this in haste, as I watched my existing hard drive fall into the long, dark twilight. My funds were low after the party the previous month, so I needed something inexpensive. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

The OWC Mercury Elite Pro Dual has two major flaws:

  • It is noisy. It’s not so much the fan, although that’s a bit louder than most drive enclosures I’ve seen. It’s that there’s almost no dampening of vibration or sounds coming from the hard drives. I had to listen to constant clickety-clacking as the drives’ heads moved over the drives’ disks.

    In comparison, the OWC miniStack I purchased in 2008 is almost noiseless. It’s the same manufacturer, and was make 9 years earlier, but it emitted less noise than its newer dual-drive cousin.

  • It has the worst hardware RAID controller I’ve ever seen.

    If you asked yourself why I didn’t configure the two drives in the Mercury Dual into a RAID1, the controller was the reason. The Dual Elite hardware requires that for a RAID1 (mirroring) or RAID0 (striping), the two drives must be the exact same model with the exact same firmware. What happens five years from now when one of the drives breaks down and that exact model is no longer available?

    It also removes one of the fun things you can do with a RAID1: Replace one drive with a better one, wait for the two drives to sync, then replace the other one; in other words, incremental upgrades to the RAID1. Other hardware RAIDs I’ve worked with (including the two-drive Synology NAS and various low-end 3ware and LSI cards) have this ability.

    In fact, I would have bought the Synology instead, but it can only be used for network-attached storage, not as a boot drive for a computer.

I purchased the Dual Elite because I liked my old miniStack, I trusted OWC as a company, and I wanted Thunderbolt 2 (this was probably unnecessary, since at the max speed of the Dual Elite, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2 would have the same performance). I would still buy a miniStack from them, but I’ll never again purchase an OWC multi-drive enclosure.

If you’re wondering why didn’t I buy a four-drive enclosure and put Gamma in the same box (saving both table space and power outlet), it’s because I wanted to protect myself in case of a hardware failure. If either the miniStack or the Dual Elite fails, at least I’ll have something to fall back on and get running quickly.

Backblaze to the un-rescue

I listened to the clicking and clacking of Alpha for a month. During that time, I also became impatient with the speed of the 4TB hard drive compared to the Fusion Drive I used to have.

I could only find one model of 4TB SSDHD. While it was still available, the last one had been manufactured five years ago. In light of my difficulties, this did not seem a wise purchase.

So I bit the bullet and got a 4TB SSD. A month later, my finances weren’t quite so dire and I could afford it.

The procedure for the switch was straight-forward:

  • Do one last duplicate of Alpha to Beta using Carbon Copy Cloner;
  • remove Alpha from the drive enclosure and replace it with the SSD;
  • boot from Beta;
  • use CCC to clone back from Beta to Alpha.

Simple, right?

I had my quieter and faster drive, but the procedure confused the heck out of Backblaze. Cloning drives can cause Backblaze to treat a drive as brand-new and never-before copied. Alpha was a clone of a clone. Backblaze wanted me to pay a new annual licensing fee to maintain a backup of a second drive.

I went through a mini-saga of consulting websites, fiddling with the /.bzvol directory on both Alpha and Beta, and even reinstalling Backblaze twice. Finally Backblaze would allow me to click on the “inherit previous backup” button without giving an error message.

So it’s over, right?

I dunno. In the last hour as I’ve typed this post, I’ve only been able to type about a dozen characters before there’s a long pause. It only affects this particular WordPress composition page.

So I can’t even write about this problem before a new one crops up somewhere.

For now, I’ve got a working computer. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Sky: Children of the Light

thatgamecompany is known for making computer games for people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in computer games. Sky: Children of the Light is their attempt at making a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game for people who would otherwise not be interested in MMOs. In my opinion, they did not succeed; if you’re not already a gamer with some experience and/or aren’t willing to face some bitter disappointments, you’ll find Sky a difficult game.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so: SPOILER ALERT! Since the game is meant to be played over and over again, at most I’m only going to spoil the experience of the first run-through. Or maybe I’ll spoil the game by giving a critical review to what is may be a delightful MMO if I got over my own limitations. Once again: SPOILER ALERT!

Background

In the first thatgamecompany game I played, Flower, you play a breeze guiding a flower petal to gather more flower petals. It was delightfully non-competitive. You could revel in the beauty of the environment, blowing past flowers to make them bloom and collect their petals. For the most part, you were playing with the game and not against it.

Their follow-up game, Journey, had you making an epic journey through several worlds to get to a light on a distant mountain. It introduced player interaction: In the second world, you met another player who could accompany you on the trip. You could only communicate through simple beeps. Your behavior options were limited: you could help the other person progress, or you could ignore them and proceed solo. There were hazards to avoid in a couple of the worlds, but the worst that could happen is that you’d lose the ability to fly somewhat and you wouldn’t be able to get some of the achievements.

When you complete Journey, you can play the game again. The incentive (apart from achievements) is that each time you’d meet someone else. Their behaviors could make each run-through different: Would they help you? Could you help them? Would they go off to journey solo? It didn’t matter that much from a game-play perspective, since the game didn’t require much skill to give a sense of satisfaction and completion. There was a zen-like quality to the worlds and the journey that made replays rewarding even if you didn’t meet anyone else.

Sky is similar to Journey: You travel from world to world, heading towards a light in a distant mountain. Your key mode of transportation is based on your cape; as you travel, you collect items (in Sky these are the Children of the Light) to improve your cape and let you fly longer. The design of the worlds in Sky is very similar to the worlds of Journey: the desert world; the skiing world; the world where monsters attack you; the world of the tower; the struggle to reach the summit of the mountain.

Children of the Light

The differences between Sky and Journey begin with your cape. In Journey the cape was useful but not required; in Sky it’s almost essential. Therefore visiting the Children and collecting their Light is a key component of the game. You can’t even visit the final world in Sky without collecting at least 20 of them, and if you consult the hint guides they suggest collecting at least 40 or more because of the difficulty of that level. My own experience is that you’d want at least 50.

Collecting all that Light is important. As you might guess, some of the Children are easy to find. Some are in locations so obscure that even with a hint guide you might not be able to find them. And some are in locations that are difficult to reach unless you have very precise control of your character.

In Journey, controlling your avatar wasn’t difficult. In Sky, the difficulty of controlling your avatar is a complex function of environment, world, cape energy, and whether you’ve just been slammed by a creature (more on that below).

More than once I’ve tried to do some precision flying in an environment and just clip some surface. The avatar starts ping-ponging all over the place, zooming uncontrollably, only able to turn slowly. If you were in the room at the time, you’d hear me screaming at my iPhone: “Why are you going over there? I didn’t tell you go there! Why aren’t you turning when I’m telling you to turn? Go up! I’m pushing the up button! Why aren’t you going up? Why are you flying when I’m telling you to jump? Why are you jumping when I’m telling you to fly?”

It makes me glad my cat is almost deaf.

As you might have figured out from the paragraph above, right now Sky is only available for iOS, on iPhones and iPads. When iOS 13 is released later this year, it will be possible to use a PS4 controller with iOS games. Perhaps then I won’t experience the frustration of trying to do precision movements on a touchscreen.

Hostile environments

As I said above, Journey had creatures that could damage your flying cape, but that wasn’t important to the overall trip. Sky also has creatures that can attack you and steal your Light, and gathering Light is basically the goal of the game. If your avatar loses Light and therefore flying power, you might have to start the game again from the first world.

Unlike Journey, in Sky these creatures are in dark environments where the screen contrast is very poor, even when when I crank my iPhone’s contrast to maximum. It can be hard to see the creatures, places you can hide, even exits from the area you’re in. There are worlds where standing in water drains your Light away.

Once, I was knocked by a creature into a dark area, my flying gone. The pit was filled with water, surrounded by blobs of blackness. I watched my Light disappear. I didn’t know what to do. (There’s a Sky equivalent of a Hearthstone in World of Warcraft, but I didn’t know about that option at the time.) I splashed around desperately, but there was no escape. Finally my avatar “died.” I found myself in another world of darkness, though with stars in the night sky at least, until I finally figured out the direction I was supposed to go.

If you play a game like Dark Souls, this sort of thing is par for the course. It certainly doesn’t match the zen-like joy of Journey or Flower. It’s as if thatgamecompany was trying to appeal to both hard-core gamers and the audience for their other games.

Other players

In Journey, you could meet with at most one other player in a given world. In Sky, when you enter an area there can be up to five players initially, and up to eight total (there’s a way to teleport to the location of one of your friends).

In the first couple of minutes of Sky, you’re limited to the same level of communication with your fellow players as in Journey: beeps and sitting down. That rapidly expands as you encounter Spirits, also known as Emotes for their basic reward. A Spirit takes you on a small trip across the landscape, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the world. At the end of the trip you receive a new gesture, pose, or sound effect for your avatar.

There are something like 36 Emotes in the game, so potentially you have access to a wide range of expressions. Often you’ll see a group of players standing around in a common area showing off the Emotes they’ve acquired to each other. This sort of “playing around” is certainly not possible in Journey!

For more direct communication, there are chat benches in all the vendor areas of the game and scattered throughout the rest of the worlds. If two players sit on the same bench, they can type text messages to one another.

Another annoyance: The “microphone” key is not available on Sky‘s keyboard, so you can’t use the iPhone’s dictation feature.

For my part, I only found someone willing to sit on the bench with me twice. The first time they typed in Japanese. I tried to apologize for not understanding them, but they promptly left. The second time I was seeking help to get through one of the monster-laden worlds; the other player expressed ignorance and left before I could say more.

The next level of social interaction is to become Friends with another player. This costs a Candle (more on currency below). This allows you to assign a name to that player. For the few couple of Friends I took the time to compose names for them. After that I just hit “Randomize” for a quick name, so most of my Friends have names like Ewotuka, Acoc, Oyes, and Isefa.

The game is easier when you travel with other players. When you’re close to another avatar, the cape energy passively regenerates. When you’re Friends with another player, you have the option for one of you to hold the other avatar’s hand and lead them, guaranteeing the energy regeneration. You can even form chains of up to eight avatars, each one clasping the hand of the next one. There are Children of the Light that are almost impossible to reach unless someone else is there to help you regenerate.

You can see an example of this in the (spoiler-laden) videos available in the Sky wiki: https://sky-children-of-the-light.fandom.com/wiki/Sky:_Children_of_the_Light_Wiki. In those videos, the player forms her own chain by playing Sky with four devices at once, regenerating cape energy rapidly.

All of this sounds wonderful, but there’s a communications gap: Without text and with the range of Emotes available, you can’t tell if someone wants to accomplish a game task or just wants to play around.

Here’s an example: Someone offered to become Friends with me. I accepted. They offered to clasp my avatar’s hand, and again I accepted. They promptly dragged me into the initial area of the most monster-laden world. Then they go of my hand. I interpreted this as they were asking for a guide to get through it. I knew something about the region. As I alluded above, I’m crappy at dodging the monsters and precision flying so I couldn’t give them a complete tour, but I could offer something. I offered my hand, they accepted, and I took them deeper into the world.

It wasn’t until we were deep into that world that it became clear that the other player wasn’t looking for a guide, they had been looking to play with Emotes or something and had picked the most dangerous world at random. In a dark area, they activated a spell that made their avatar glow. This is a purely cosmetic effect; it does not illuminate your surroundings in any way. But in a dark zone, it made my iPhone’s screen wash out with the bright glow. I could no longer see the dark terrain and the dark exit to get out of the dark zone. There was only the glow of my companion.

I didn’t want to abandon them in a zone they didn’t understand, but I was stuck fumbling around blind. I tried to initiate a text communication with them, but they refused. (I later learned that Japanese speakers are often embarrassed that they can’t communicate with English speakers.) I continued to try to find a way out, but finally we met up with someone else who knew what they were doing and I joined them, leaving my first companion behind.

That’s just one incident, and I’ve experienced others. The bottom line is that there’s no way to express ideas like “Please, I need some help” or “Please, let me help you” or “I just want to dance” directly. You only have guesses based on behavior. In the incident I described above, I tried to be helpful only to come across as rude in the end.

Of course there are ways around this, but they’re the standard MMO tricks. In this spoiler-laden video (https://youtu.be/Ah_-W3XKEfY, recorded just last night as I type this) you can see a Sky expert coordinating with her friends using some communications program; I can’t tell if it’s Twitch, Discord, or something else.

Eventually this will all shake down. Some standards will emerge and communities will form. Perhaps there will be default communication channels for each language. Something like this happened with World of Warcraft, except that WoW provided open text communication from the beginning, and servers were already segregated by geographic region. Maybe a sort of pidgin will evolve based on the available emotes.

This is far from the contemplative joy and basic companionship in Journey.

Currency

There are five currencies in Sky: Candles, Hearts, Ascended Candles, Seasonal Tokens, and Seasonal Candles. The last two are for cosmetic improvements only, so I’m not going to discuss them further.

Candles are the basic currency. Once you’ve interacted with an Emote and gained a new expression, that Emote becomes a vendor in a world’s social area. Candles will let you purchase some upgrades for your avatar.

Candles are also the basis for social interactions between avatars. When you make an offer to become someone’s Friend, the cost is one Candle. To upgrade interactions with that Friend costs more Candles. To be able to text-chat with that Friend costs yet more candles.

Candles can be forged by collecting wax from other candles in the environment (something I do in real life) and from other sources. It’s possible to spend time in the game each day grinding for wax. According to one of the videos I linked above, you’d get about 15 Candles for two hours of work each day.

Here’s where the real-world money comes in the free-to-play app: You can also pay for Candles. For example, for $20 you can get 60 Candles (actually, it’s presently 72 for $20 as a new-game promotion). That lets you make Friends freely and purchase quite a few minor improvements for your character.

You may ask, given that my critical review of the game thus far, did I resist paying for Candles? I’ve already confessed that I’m a former WoW pet collector, so you can guess the answer.

If you want serious cosmetic improvements to your avatar (hairstyles, masks, trousers, capes), you have to move to the next level of currency: Hearts. These costume items have no effect on the game. They’re a digital good, like WoW pets, that solely affect the appearance of your character. The cost of new trousers might be 5 Hearts; the price for a really nifty cape might be 30 Hearts.

Hearts can’t be directly purchased through real-world cash. You can purchase them from the Emotes/vendors at a price of three Candles for one Heart… once for each vendor. Since not every vendor sells a Heart, you might get 35 Hearts this way (at a total cost of 105 Candles, which takes us back to spending real-world money for Candles).

You can also get Hearts from Friends. If you send a Friend a bundle of three Candles, they’ll receive a Heart. So the way to get Hearts is to give them. You send Hearts to your Friends and hope they’ll reciprocate. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this “investment” of Candles will pay back in Hearts, especially if you haven’t paid Candles to initiate a text chat with that Friend to arrange any deals. You send out bundles of Candles and hope for the best.

This leads to another my criticisms of Sky, in the choice of their iconography. Suppose a newcomer to the game meets me. I could use someone else when visiting a difficult world, so I offer to be Friends with them. They accept, we travel around, I show them where some hidden Lights are. Later, I send them a Heart to see if we can work out an exchange.

Is this how they perceive it? There’s nothing obvious in the game about the informal Heart economy. You can read about it in fan-based web pages (that’s how I learned it) and it may be implied in the optional game tutorials (I haven’t checked).

In other words, a newcomer adventures with a stranger for a brief while and later they get a Heart from them. It might be perceived as a creepy gesture. I wish the Heart wasn’t a “heart” but some other icon without the same connotations.

That leaves Ascended Candles. They are a reward for going through the final world successfully; if you recall above, that’s the one that requires at least 20 Light to enter. The more Light you enter that zone with, the greater the potential reward… if you can manage a challenging environment.

The Ascended Candles can be used to purchase “permanent” cape upgrades from the Emotes/vendors; most vendors offer one such upgrade and a couple offer two. Each upgrade means that when you start the game again, your cape starts out with additional Light. Overall, this gives Sky some of the visceral feel of Diablo: You go through the same adventure each time, but you get a bit more powerful and maybe you can handle some tougher challenges.

Ascended Candles can also unlock the most potent Friend option: To be able to Warp to a Friend’s location within the same game world. Since Ascended Candles are so hard to get, I’d only use this option on someone I really, really trusted.

Unskippable Cutscenes

I wanted to mention the unskippable cutscenes in this review. Have I talked about the unskippable cutscenes yet? There are unskippable cutscenes. They’re annoying after the first playthrough, especially if you’re in the middle of a complicated maneuver that gets interrupted by an unskippable cutscene. There are skippable cutscenes, but not enough compared to the unskippable cutscenes. If you think this paragraph is wordy and annoying, just wait until you have to deal with the unskippable cutscenes.

Conclusions

I investigated Sky because a friend of mine was a big fan of Flower and Journey. They were looking forward to another game from thatgamecompany that echoed the meditative qualities of those two. I offered to test the waters for them and walk them through Sky when they were ready, as I had when I introduced them to Journey.

Sky: Children of the Light is not the game I think they were expecting. When my friend finally has the chance to sit down and play the game with me, I think they will be disappointed. It’s not likely that they’ll read this review (my blog is so obscure that not even my good friends read it), but I’ll keep the critical tone out of my voice and let them make their own judgements.

I’m neutral on the monetization of the game. You can play Sky without spending a dime. You can forge your way through the game solo, get the 20 Light to be pounded in the final zone, emerge to see the game’s ending, then never play again; I think you’d have more fun doing basically the same thing in Journey. You can also make Friends and gain Hearts by grinding for Candle wax, but you’ll spend time instead of money.

I think my WoW friends would perceive Sky as a very light MMO. I can easily see some of them playing Sky with one hand as they tank Ragnaros with the other… if they cared to play Sky at all. There’s definitely a market for people who like light MMOs; Second Life is one example. But I believe there’s more to do in Second Life than there is to do in Sky.

Sky is too much of an MMO to be like Flower and Journey. I’m turned off by its occasionally frustrating controls, difficult environments, and player communication issues. I hoped for better from thatgamecompany.

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.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

It occurred to me that I’ve mentioned Horizon: Zero Dawn a couple of times in this blog, but my review of it never appeared here. For the sake of completeness and comparison, here are my reviews of Horizon: Zero Dawn and its expansion, Horizon: The Frozen Wilds. These reviews first appeared in a small members-only World of Warcraft forum, Deadly Cupcakes.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

This is one where you play a savage hunter going after mechanical dinosaurs.

I’ll start with what makes this game unique: the encounter mechanics. In H:ZD, you can’t go toe-to-toe with a foe unless you’re at least 10-15 levels above them, and often not even then. To deal with a given beast, you have scan them to learn their weaknesses (e.g., they have a canister that will explode if hit with fire), and come up with strategies for defeating them. The game does not force you into a particular strategy, it just provides you with a variety of tools, each with ammo of various elemental types (fire, shock, etc.): bows, tripwires, traps, and slings; there’s even some machine-gun-like weapon that I never used. You typically sneak around, plant your obstacles, lure a mob to you, do some damage… then run away before it can attack you, wait until it’s forgotten you’re there, then head back to do more damage.

If you all you want to do is blast away at enemies, this is definitely not the game for you. If you like to play a game that rewards patience and strategy, it’s a game to consider. For me, a player who has no twitch reflexes, it was a lot of fun.

This is an open-world game. After some initial tutorial quests, you can go pretty much anywhere you want, though the further you go from the starting areas the tougher the mobs get. There are the usual loads of side quests; I went on every one I found to out-level the main story content. There are also many types of collectables; my favorite was the Vantage, which gave you an overlay of the original high-tech landscape before the fall of civilization.

The graphics: This is a beautiful game on the PS4 (I don’t think it’s available on other platforms). The landscapes are lush, the details on the characters and the creatures are amazing. More than once I was befuddled by a shadow crossing the sky, then realize it wasn’t one of the flying creatures, but the sun rising. The one drag on this realism are the cut-scenes, which occasionally demonstrate some graphics glitches.

The story: You play Aloy, who (after a bit of a tutorial) starts out as a 19-year-old outcast from the Nora tribe. As you proceed in your efforts to be accepted by the tribe, you gradually become aware that there’s a destiny in store for Aloy, one that explains the mechanical creatures and the ancient remnants of a technological civilization that are all over the landscape. In the end, I liked the story; it did a good job of rationalizing the environment and tugged on my heartstrings as Aloy learned who she was and where she came from.

Diversity in gaming: Aloy is a 19-year-old woman, but none of her outfits looked anything other than practical gear. Several male characters (and at least one female character) attempt to flirt with her, but she has none of it: she’s focused on the task at hand. There’s an even blend of different human racial types represented. Aloy’s one semi-romantic interest (it goes no farther than “I’d like to show you that cavern someday”) is someone with a different skin color than hers. Like the recent Tomb Raider games, this game does well by the female lead (at least, according to this particular cis-gendered white male reviewer).

Final verdict: If you have a PS4, and you value patience in your game-play, this is a “must-have” game.

Horizon: The Frozen Wilds

This is an expansion for Horizon: Zero Dawn. When you install H:FW, a new large area is added to the Zero Dawn game map. H:FW assumes that you’ve already played the base game to completion (or close to it), since you face a level 30 mob just to reach the area and the mob and quest levels go up from there; for comparison, I finished the base game at level 48 and was level 58 by the time I completed the Frozen Wilds.

If you play Zero Dawn to completion (and after you go through the post-credits scene), a dialog box informs you that if you play again you’ll be taken to the point just before the end-game big battle, but with all the skills and gear you gained during that fight. That’s when Aloy (Horizon’s protagonist) was when I started the DLC. There’s no new quest marker; you have to look at the map, see the big new area, and head to it out of curiosity.

Once there, you find yourself among the Banuk, a tribe introduced in Zero Dawn with an affinity for communicating with the machine dinosaurs. Something has changed, and the machines in the far north have been possessed by a daemonic force. As you progress through the main quest (there are many side quests and collectibles, though not as many as the base game) you learn why this happened and what Aloy can do to stop it.

Guerilla Games put all their skill into this DLC. The character models are better, I saw no errors during the dialog sequences, and the graphics in the Frozen Wilds are as lush and varied as the base game. The challenges are greater, but you’re given access to better gear to handle them. Two new paths are added to dump your skill points into; they’re non-critical (better handling of mounts, better resources gathered) but they make grinding for craft supplies a bit easier. The story is shorter than the base game, of course; I think it me about 20 hours to get through everything, including all the side quests.

The overall gameplay of Frozen Wilds is the same as Zero Dawn: scan the monsters, plan your attack, grind for mats and craft supplies for your encounters. If you didn’t like that style of game before, there’s no change now.

If you liked Horizon: Zero Dawn, you should definitely consider Horizon: The Frozen Wilds. I enjoyed it, and I hope Guerilla is thinking about further adventures for Aloy.

Final Fantasy XV

As some of you may know, I’m homebound for a few weeks and was looking for a game to pass the time. I found one: Final Fantasy XV. Before I get to my review, I have to address the elephant in room (though it’s more like a T-Rex in a broom closet):

The very first female character players see in the game is Cindy. She’s got a chest that only exists in the world of computer graphics, and wears a car mechanic’s outfit of the sort you see models wearing in magazines like Hot Rod. She speaks in a Southern Belle accent and generally acts like a sex kitten. You can see an image of her here:

http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Cindy_Aurum

There are other women in FFXV. Those women are either standard anime tropes (the cute teenager with mystic powers; the woman warrior with revealing chest armor), or background NPC figures that are easily overlooked or skipped over in dialogs.

FFXV was published in 2016, well after awareness of representation in video games had become an issue. There was no excuse for this, other than to appeal to young Japanese boys who are presumably the target audience of the Final Fantasy series in its country of origin.

If I hadn’t just paid $50 for the game, I would have ragequit when I saw her. As it stands, I cringe every time she’s on the screen. This is fairly often, since she’s a frequent quest-giver and is responsible for maintaining your character’s main mode of transportation. Of course, whenever she refuels your car, you get the classic “bend-over” as she waxes the hood.

Setting that aside (and it’s a lot to set aside), let’s take a look at the rest of Final Fantasy XV.

FFXV is a fairly standard entry in the fantasy-world RPG genre. You fight monsters, complete quests, and explore dungeons. These gain you experience points to advance your character, money (the currency is “gil”) to buy items, and skill points (here called “Ascension Points”) to buy skills in a progressive tree.

Your character, Prince Noctis, starts off in an open-world environment, accompanied by three companions. Predictably, given what I noted at the start of the review, one of them makes frequent remarks on the female NPCs’ appearance. It’s very much a guys’ adventure, with typical male-bonding tropes.

The open world follows the conventions of the genre: villages, towns, cities, quest-giving NPCs, wandering monsters, etc. The difference is that the environment is based on modern-day imagery like that you’d find the mid-west. The towns are gas stations with diners, the main characters dress in Goth outfits, and you travel from place to place along interstate-style highways in a sports car. The monsters are still monsters, and you can still hack at them with swords, but you can also use guns if you wish.

Apart from what’s noted above, the story is FFXV‘s weakest link. It’s conventional: After the death of his father and the conquest of his kingdom by evil armored invaders, Prince Noctis must save his kingdom and marry the princess to restore order and happiness to the world. Evil foes with obvious motives obstruct his hero’s journey, including the mysterious Ardyn (who looks like the Fourth Doctor, acts like the Seventh Doctor, and turns out to be like the Valyard).

Apart from the lack of originality in the story, the presentation of the world’s mythology is confusing. There are big cinematic confrontations where it wasn’t clear to me who was doing what to whom and why. Maybe it would have made more sense in the original Japanese or to someone who played previous Final Fantasy games, but I found it to be opaque.

Another problem with the story is after Chapter Nine or so, the open world is left behind and you’re put on a generally linear path through the rest of the story. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing; a linear story revealed between combat and puzzle challenges is the description of the Uncharted series, which I enjoyed.

But the Uncharted games know what they’re doing, and FFXV does not. The linear portion of the story mainly consists of one cinematic after another, with very little player agency. It’s more like watching a movie than playing a video game. That would be fine as well, if the movie were interesting. But it’s just another tired series of cliches. For heaven’s sake, if you’re in Japan, just have lunch with the anime studio folks next door and ask them how it’s done; don’t come up with something boring.

The partial saving grace is that after you’ve finished with the linear story, you can time-travel back to the open world with all the gear, experience, and skills you’ve gained. The story is over, but there’s still plenty of open-world content to visit, depending on how long you chose to wait before completing the tasks that lead you to the linear adventure.

For the record, I played on the Easy difficulty level. The linear story requires you to be level 35-40, I didn’t go on it until I was level 50, at the end of the story I was level 55. When I returned to the open world (courtesy of a time-traveling dog), I was immediately informed of a level 99 quest. So there was plenty more to do, if I cared to do it.

I finally grew tired of the game when I hit level 77. It’s certainly possible to advance further than that; game forums speak of leveling up to a max of 120. But to get beyond 77 I learned that I would have to become less focused on adventuring and more on using tricks; e.g., eating foods and gaining items that boosted experience; resting in places that granted XP bonuses. It just didn’t seem worth it.

Conclusion: FFXV served its purpose, which was to occupy my time. It certainly is not the best open-world video game I’ve played; that honor belongs to Horizon: Zero Dawn. If you, like me, are looking for a basic time-spender, FFXV is acceptable entertainment, if you can overlook the misogyny and the story problems.

Now to find another time-spender. Platformers, first-person shooters, and multi-player combat games need not apply.

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.