Monday, July 11, 2022

Game 462: The Magic Tower (1978)

I start the game, create a new universe, and get a random quest.
              
The Magic Tower
United States
Bedrosian Games (developer and publisher)
Released 1978 for North Star DOS
Date Started: 29 June 2022
Date Ended: 30 June 2022
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
     
If you haven't had a chance to check out my Spanish-language colleague, El Explorador de RPG, I really urge you to give it a try, even if you have to use something like Google Translate. (Except for translating PLATO as "DISH" and Moria as "would die," both technically correct, it seems to work pretty well for me.) Whereas I assembled my master list from existing databases, El Explorador created his by painstakingly going through era magazines and newsletters. As such, he has found several games that completely escaped most catalogs, including this one. This review isn't going to add much to the understanding of the game that El Explorador has already offered, but I include it for comprehensiveness and to add a few of my own comments.
    
I often wonder about games that we've lost because they were released for unpopular platforms. Such is the case with North Star Computers (1976-1984), a Berkeley-California based company with its own line of microcomputers. They offered some advantages but ultimately failed to attain a significant market share. They hosted a small number of RPGs written for North Star's proprietary OS, NSDOS, including ports of what would become the Maces and Magic series. But it was popular enough for a California fan named John C. Dvorak to create a regular newsletter called John C. Dvorak's Software Review, and it was in the September 1978 issue that El Explorador found mention of The Magic Tower. He somehow found a copy of the game in an archive of multiple Bedrosian Games. If it weren't for El Explorador's detailed descriptions of how to get an NSDOS emulator working within a DOS emulator, plus his instructions on how to emulate this game specifically, I wouldn't have even gotten a title screen.
   
The Magic Tower is an all-text game that puts you in charge of a party of adventurers seeking an artifact in the titular tower. They must contend with various beasts to get hold of it. Before you play the game, you're meant to run a program called UNIVERSE that sets up a new instance of the game. You can specify how many characters you want to control and the level of "randomization" within the world, but the rest the game creates for you, including the races of your characters, their attributes, and the specific item that you're meant to quest for. This latter element shows up later in the Warrior of Ras series, but I otherwise don't see any connections. 
          
"Character creation." The game picks everything but the name.
        
Once the universe is written, you run the VENTURE program to play the game. It begins by having you name your characters while it tells you something about them, including their classes. Characters can be sprites, zealots, magi, heroes, wizards, men, dwarves, and elves, among (presumably) other options. Each comes with attributes set for combat, morale, sorcery ability, endurance, and fatigue, all ranked on an ordinal scale:

  • Incapable or None (combat, sorcery, and fatigue only)
  • Very low
  • Low
  • Moderately Low
  • Moderate
  • Moderately High
  • High
  • Very High
  • Extremely High
   
Except for fatigue, higher is better.
   
The game is controlled with 10 numeric commands, with options to check the status of your characters or items, change the order of the formation, carry a magic item, put a magic item into the party's pack, head towards a tower level, return to the home base, search for magic items, rest, and rename a character.
        
An in-game list of commands.
        
You spend most of the core game marching from the basecamp to a specific tower level, searching for magic items, fighting combats that come along as you travel or search, and heading back to camp when you're feeling weak. I didn't inspect the code, but it seems to me that there's roughly a 50% chance of a combat to or from Level 1 of the tower, and roughly an additional 15% chance of combat for every tower level you try to ascend. So if you start from the basecamp and say you want to head for tower Level 10, chances are you're going to fight at least two or three combats along the way.
     
Combat is with a huge variety of standard CRPG monster types, including various types of evil humans, goblins, trolls, griffons, werewolves, sirens, witches, gremlins, rakshasas, manticores, ogres, and ghouls. The only major differences among foes are how much damage they can take, how hard they hit, and whether they have spells.

If the player has any spellcasting characters, combat begins with a spellcasting round in which you're asked to specify your "sorcery aggressiveness" on a scale of 0 to 1. Making the player enter decimals on a scale of 0 to 1 instead of, say, 1 to 10, is a very programmer thing to do. Entering 0 means you hold all your spell power in reserve for defense, which only makes sense if you're facing spellcasting enemies. A value of 1 means you're putting 100% into offense. If you specify anything higher than 0, you indicate which enemies will receive your spells and how many to each enemy. Enemies may have their own magic defenses.
     
At the beginning of a battle with some goblins, I nail one with four spells and kill him.
       
After the magic round, physical combat begins. In an open area like the wilderness or a dungeon room, each character lines up against one enemy in order of formation. Thus, if you have 4 characters and there are 4 enemies, everyone is evenly paired off. If there are only 3 enemies, the last character in the formation twiddles his thumbs while his compatriots fight. If there are more enemies than characters, the excess enemies will happily wait until their comrades are cut down before they join the battle. It's all very dignified.

During combat, each character specifies a "physical aggressiveness" on a scale of, you guessed it, 0 to 1. (Characters who are "incapable" in combat don't get to pick anything; I assume the game just gives them a 0.) This indicates how much strength the character reserves for parrying and how much he puts into offense. I usually went with 0.5. Lower numbers keep the party safe but at the expense of your own time. The game gets a bit tedious as the messages go by and it constantly pauses to run some calculations, and you're tempted to just enter a series of 1s to end things faster.
         
0.5 was the right setting for this combat. I managed to hit the hydra a few times and didn't take any wounds myself.
          
Occasionally, you get attacked in a hallway, in which case only the lead or rear character can fight (depending on whether the enemies attack from the front or rear). This is a real drag when there are a bunch of them. Killing half a dozen enemies with a single character can easily take 15 minutes of going round after round.
   
At the end of each combat round, you can re-order your party, for instance to put a character with higher endurance into the lead slot, and you can try to flee. Fleeing never worked for me once in about 20 tries. I was also confused as to why the "magic round" only recurred every 3 or 4 rounds. The number of spells I had available also seemed extremely variable.
        
In this battle, my characters were too aggressive and took wounds. One of them was killed.
       
If you're too reckless in combat, though, your characters take wounds. Each wound lowers the character's endurance by one level. "Minor" wounds do this temporarily, and the character is healed when you return to camp. "Major" wounds are permanent. Balancing this, a certain number of kills gives you enough experience to raise your endurance by one level. Thus, you spend the game going back and forth between endurance levels as you lose one to a major wound but then gain one by "leveling up."
     
If a character's endurance falls below "very low," he's dead. Assuming the entire party doesn't die, the game will roll a replacement the next time you visit your basecamp. The party becomes an ever-changing Ship of Theseus. Fortunately, any magic items that you find stay with the party.

Combat, morale, and sorcery ability never increase from experience. The only way to increase those is to find a magic item that bestows an ability. I don't know how many magic items there are in the game. Each one is numbered, and the highest number I saw was 83. You find them by searching on tower levels, or sometimes at the ends of combat on tower levels. The higher the level, the greater likelihood that you'll find something, but the harder the foes. Found magic items are kept in an undifferentiated stack until you return to basecamp and try, one by one, to wield each of them. At that point, the game tells you their names and alignments, and you can see the effects on your statistics.
   
I started logging them, although I'm not sure how much is randomized for each new scenario. My list includes:

3. Bow of Pain (good): combat and morale -1
7. Ring of Olas (good): morale +2
9. Helm of Heaven (good): endurance +3
19. Feena's Dagger (good): combat and morale +1
30. Evil Bow (evil): combat and sorcery +1
47. Ring of Truth (good): everything +2
53. Waters of Decay (evil): kills wielder
65. Iron Crown (evil): endurance -2
70. Oranon's Helm (evil): morale +2, endurance -2
83. Thanatops (evil): kills wielder
    
As you can see, each item offers one or a mix of effects, sometimes a mix of good and bad. The interesting thing is that "evil" items aren't uniformly negative (although they tend that way), nor are "good" items uniformly positive. No item that I found bestows any combat skill on someone who's "incapable" nor any sorcery skill on someone who has "none."
         
Part of the list of magic items I'd found.
         
I logged six items that killed the wielder instantly, although some of them might have just lowered endurance, and the wielder happened to already have a low endurance. Since there's no way to discover these effects until you wield them, you can't prevent those deaths. You just have to sigh and roll a new character.
  
Once I had about a dozen magic items, I had enough good ones that all four of my characters were heading out with almost all of their attributes at "very high" or "extremely high." I settled into a pattern of visiting the tower levels around 8 to 10, searching and fighting until I had about five new magic items, then returning to camp to test them. After I lost the character in slot #1 to an instant-kill item, I just kept using that same character slot rather than risking the characters who had built high endurance through combat. The 38th item that I logged was the one I'd been sent to find: Virata's Battle Axe. I suppose some players get lucky and find their magic item on the first try, and others have to identify 82 of them before the quest item shows up.
   
The game doesn't rate very high--nothing in 1978 could possibly rate very high--but I thought this was a pretty decent game for its age. There's a real tension as you head for the next level of the tower or wait for the "search" process to finish, and there are some decent tactics in combat as you try to figure out the underlying math. As El Explorador pointed out, this is likely the first microcomputer RPG to give the player control of a party of individually-named characters.
           
The not-very-exciting victory screen. The game just notes that the artifact "was safely recovered" and then takes you back to the universe-creation program.
         
My biggest problem was with the interface, but I'm sure that was due to emulation. The BACKSPACE key doesn't work in the emulator-within-the-emulator, so every time I made a typo, I had to hit ENTER and get an error message and try again. The most common typo was going to hit a physical aggression value like 0.5 and having the emulator not register the decimal. In those cases (when the value I entered was over 1), the game didn't throw an error as expected but rather seemed to read the input as 0. Beyond that, the game is just slow as hell and cranking up the emulator cycles only helped a little. Part of the problem is you have to keep hitting ENTER to acknowledge messages, most of which you don't need. I could have done without the game going through every character's status after every round of combat, for instance.
   
But those are minor quibbles about a well-programmed game. The authors are Gary Bedrosian, Richard Christie, and Lee Elmendorf. Bedrosian ran his own game company, Bedrosian Games, later Microcomputer Games, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His other titles include North Atlantic Convoy Raider (1978), Nukewar (1978), Lords of Karma (1981), and Empire of the Over-Mind (1981), the latter published by Avalon Hill. He likely gave up game programming because his real job, involving research into electromagnetic pulses and aerospace systems (Bedrosian has a Ph.D. from CalTech) took up too much of his time. I'm guessing he's about 70-72 now. I tried e-mailing him through his website but didn't get a response; it was a long shot, as the site hadn't been updated since 2003. I wasn't able to find anything about Christie or Elmendorf.
   
Thanks again to El Explorador for unearthing this one. He's found a few others that I still need to investigate. We owe him a lot for making the "Dark Age" of CRPGs a little brighter.

38 comments:

  1. That's a terrific find! I've only played one game for my project that had a North Star port but I could only find an Apple II version. (Grow, which was a "learning system" but could also be used to write adventures.)

    I do get the nagging feeling I've left an adventure game or two from that platform on the table, so if you or anyone else happens to see one that might be promising, let me know.

    According to a long text file by Bedrosian himself, he wrote Lords of Karma in 1978 and Empire of the Over-Mind in 1979. (You have been going strictly by publishing year so you're not incorrect, just wanted to mention in context, Karma would have been developed the same time as this.)

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    1. Ah, Gary Bedrosian. I tried to email him as well, and I am pretty sure you did for your own Renga-in-Blue blog Jason.
      Between the 3 of us, I think we covered all his games. It is missing from Mobygames, but Gary Bedrosian also did Close Assault, the first (and only ?) port of Squad Leader. Trivia : Close Assault is in Tiny Pascal, a lost language that one of my commenter is trying to reverse engineer from Close Assault (that's how I even know this).

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    2. Apologies, I just realized we are missing "Planet Miners". Oh well, I ll add it to my list for completion sake.

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    3. Heck, I thought I know an obscure programming language or two, but Tiny Pascal is new to me. From what I just read it doesn't seem to be to different from proper Pascal, so reverse engineering it should hopefully be feasible.

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    4. Please add to Mobygames if you find the time. I've added a ridiculous number of obscure RPGs, but there'll always be some that escape me. :P

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  2. Indeed; that's not only an obscure title, it is an obscure platform!

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  3. Did you really play this for 54 hours over two days, or is there a decimal-point issue there similar to the one you flag in the post? :)

    (While I'm nitpicking, I just noticed that Dark Sun is italicized in the Must Play list while all the others are in Roman type)

    Nice to see a game from a Techer (I'm also an alum)! Mike Roberts, who developed the Text Adventure Development System (TADS) -- one of the two mainstays of the amateur text adventure/interactive fiction scene, though its luster has faded somewhat compared with the other one, Inform -- also went to Caltech, and I know some other alums who've done some IF stuff, but not aware of any other RPGs.

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    1. I was wondering about the time warp myself.

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    2. I think I accidentally copied the 54 hours from some other game's header and forgot to adjust it. I fixed it here.

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  4. It's this commitment and ability to save the obscure from the depths of history, that makes you both brilliant! Thank you!

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  5. It's always fun to run into people's writing before they got famous, an experience I've also had with wargaming/roleplaying zines from the 70s.

    John C. Dvorak would of course go on to have a huge career as a tech columnist and is still, well, quite a character.

    Magic Tower looks like about as much of a D&D ripoff as you'd expect from a 1978 CRPG, but the wound system is actually pretty creative. I'm not sure if there was anything like it in a published RPG at that point.

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    1. the wound system seems like the base for the system West End Games used for their Star Wars TTRPG that then influenced a system I used in a homebrew TTRPG. Players didn't have hit points, They received wounds based on the weapon that hit them and ranged in severity. There was an allowance for hit location too. A player could take several light or superficial wounds and heal up later but a severe wound to the head from a bullet and you might as well just let the player roll up a new character right then and there.

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    2. There is a board fantasy wargame from 1977 called War of the Ring (Lord of the Rings themed) where the characters have the same attributes (with numeric measures), the damage comes in wounds (but I'm not sure if they have a severity), and it has magic items that offer attribute modifiers.

      I think The Magic Tower rules are loosely based on War of the Ring.

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  6. Thank you for your kind words. I just want the history of CRPGs to be preserved, and I do the best I can.

    Yours is a great article, you discovered new details about the game. I didn't had the patience to finish it.

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  7. Looks like a pretty good addition to a gamer's library in '78, and lets face it, given how thoroughly you've gone through the early years, finding a game from that era which isnt purely derivative is a win.

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  8. I just find it mind-boggling how fast D&D spread. It was published in 1974 and a scant four years later it's being copied and riffed on in half of the computer games that exist. And some of these games aren't bad. Better than tabletop D&D, that's for sure. Weapon speed and segments, anyone?

    What hardware does NSDOS run on? I don't see it listed anywhere. The screen shots look like the IBM PC but that didn't come out until three years later.

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    1. Woops that was me

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    2. NSDOS runs on North Star hard disks (you could install one in many computers of the era), and of course in North Star Horizon computers.

      Gary Bedrosian programmed this game (and some others) using an IMSAI computer with North Star hard disk, according to the records he has left.

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    3. Based purely on speculation, it 's probably something to do with TSR being very good at getting early D&D on to university campuses, which is also where a lot of this early programming was happening.

      How it managed to spread so quickly between campuses, I wouldn't know. Perhaps people bringing D&D home during holidays, introducing it to friends, who then take it off with them?

      I'm sure someone somewhere has written an article on the viral spread of D&D.

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    4. D&D was released by TSR of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin as 3 booklets in a white box in 1974. A few D&D-inspired games appeared on the PLATO computer-assisted instruction (CAI) system in 1975 or 1976, including DND and Dungeon. Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg based Wizardry on one of them.

      In early 1978, I started playing tabletop D&D with a Mensa group in Chicago, Illinois. (I lived in Los Angeles, but traveled to Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis for work.) Several of the Chicago dungeon masters (DM's) had learned the game directly from D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, or from other Wisconsin players who had first played with Gygax.

      TSR's newsletter, Strategic Review, featured "Mapping the Dungeons," contact info for DM's, which was continued in at least a few early issues of Dragon Magazine. I was listed in one or two of them - I would have said a late issue of Strategic Review, but based on the Wikipedia timeline, all seven of those had probably been published by the time I started playing, so it was probably in an early Dragon Magazine. I mention that to give an idea of how few DM's and D&D groups there were by 1978-1979. Only a dozen or so were listed in each issue.

      When I returned to L.A., I found a few conventions and game stores that had D&D games. These included a Doug Wright con (see https://fancyclopedia.org/Doug_Wright) near the L.A. airport, Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, Le Maison de Guerre in Tarzana (north of L.A.), and a store in Long Beach. Students at Cal Tech had developed a spinoff from D&D called "Warlock." That version had more complex combat - tables for weapon type vs. armor type, critical hits, fumbles, and so on. Players used templates for the size of a Fireball, Cone of Cold, etc.

      The common wisdom in 1978 was that the booklets were useless for learning how to play D&D. Either you learned by playing in a group with a DM who had three or fewer degrees of separation from Gygax or Dave Arneson, or you ended up with a "house rules" game that didn't bear much relationship to how others played D&D.

      Lori and I both attended the September 1978 World S.F. Con (Iguanacon) in Phoenix, Arizona. That had a huge tabletop gaming area in one of the convention hotels. One of the games there was a charity game, in which you could donate money to resurrect your character, buy upgrades and equipment, etc. I also played in a side game in which my character was turned into a Wight, but became free-willed after the other players killed my master.

      Lori and her brother discovered the "Arizona Variant" D&D game at Iguanacon, and started playing it regularly after the convention. That game featured experience points that could be used to improve skills and spells, with no character levels. It was a major influence on the system Lori and I developed for Hero's Quest / Quest for Glory.

      That's a long-winded way of documenting the spread of tabletop D&D and similar role-playing games. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, D&D was not yet a clear winner in RPG's. Players also played Chivalry and Sorcery, Runequest, Empire of the Petal Throne, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, and other games that were a hybrid of wargaming, D&D, and other games.

      D&D started out in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and spread from there to other cities and towns around the world. There were originally only a few DM's and copies of the rules in California and other locations farther from the source. My Chicago group made a "pilgrimage" to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin at one point, where I picked up back issues of Strategic Review and the first expansions to D&D (Blackmoor and Greyhawk).

      To my mind, "modern" D&D started with the publication of Greyhawk. It was a thicker booklet than the original ones, and went into more depth on how to make a role-playing campaign. I think Greyhawk also introduced the use of polyhedral dice, such as the D20. The original booklets only used standard D6 dice. They suggested using Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival game for a map.

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    5. This is super interesting -- thanks so much for sharing it! I've heard versions of the broad sweep before, but as someone who lives in LA and went to Caltech (go figure Techers overcomplicated stuff...), it's really neat to get the local color.

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    6. Sorry, when I said hard disks, I meant disk units, my translation was wrong.

      And I want to take the opportunity to thank Corey Cole for his games. Quest for Glory I was one of my first CRPGs (my aunt bring it to me as a gift when he was working in USA), and it was the reason why I learned to read English.

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    7. It also might be worth noting that D&D grew out of a pre-existing tabletop wargaming community which, while never especially large, did give Gygax and Arneson a base of players and playtesters who were already familiar with their names (they'd co-authored a moderately successful medieval fantasy wargame prior to D&D) and with rolling dice to simulate combat actions.

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  9. Great entry and cool research.

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  10. Using decimals would have been acceptable in 1978 (Apple raised eyebrows in 1976 when they released a programming language that lacked it entirely), but it became passé several years later.

    Floating-point arithmetic is both slow and awkward, which was accepted up to about the mid-1980s (I believe in part in response to Apple ... it was actually a selling point of the original IBM PC). Then people developed actual code standards, and wanted you to avoid floating-point arithmetic if you didn't actually require it. It matters less once everyone has a fast processor, but that doesn't reliably happen until at least the late 1990s.

    In games this old, one common cause of slowness is the overhead required to do floating-point arithmetic.

    The Phantasie series was one of the last RPGs I know of to routinely use floating-point arithmetic (before it became acceptable again). Other RPGs, even by 1987 (like Gold Box or Ultima), generally go out of their way to avoid it.

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    1. I see zero reason for any RPG to use floating point math, really. Even many first-person shooters and other 3D games use fixed-point math because it is just SO much faster.

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    2. I was thinking game rules, not graphics.

      If you want to model anything in game rules with exponents, logarithms, etc. (you can do this more readily in a CRPG than in a tabletop game), it's better on a modern system to actually use floating point arithmetic. The former preferred method of emulating FP arithmetic with pure integer operations is bug-prone extra work.

      A small number of FP operations on a modern system isn't going to be noticeable, but it very much is on an older computer -- you'll often incur the overhead of loading FP libraries, for instance -- so that bug-prone extra work was once actually worth the cost.

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  11. Always love to discover games from the 1970s, so much experimentation/originality. The graphics (or lack of them) always bring a kind of "heavy" atmosphere (a good thing to me). At the same time, the simplicity of these games motivates me to return to programming and try some small-scale project like those.

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  12. This obituary could be the same Gary Bedrosian:

    https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/latimes/name/gary-bedrosian-obituary?id=26977965

    In any case, he stopped publishing in 1999:

    https://www.scopus.com/authid/detail.uri?authorId=6603947636

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    1. Based on the biography Gary had on his own website, the family members absolutely don't match, so it is another person.

      Gary's website was just taken down this week or last week, possibly because he or his family started receiving an unusually large number of emails from it. It is still available on the Wayback Machine.

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  13. "Characters can be sprites, zealots, magi, heroes, wizards, men, dwarves, and elves, among (presumably) other options."

    I'm glad to see such an early presence of female player characters. Or are all the non-men non-binary and you never happened to roll the women class?

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    1. In a few years it will be considered sexual appropriation for a male to play a female character. So I think it's safest to play your own sex.

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    2. If that's a joke, it is in exceptionally poor taste.

      If you mean it seriously, I have too much respect for our host to give it the response it deserves.

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    3. No, that completely sounds like the kind of thing that PO would say seriously.

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    4. Heh, why does it make you upset? I'm just extrapolating current trends. Who would have thought only ten years ago that saying men can't get pregnant would be controversial, for example?

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    5. You are "extrapolating current trends" in the same way that the people who say "trans people aren't people" do. It is an inherently bigoted statement.

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    6. Amazing what one can deduce armed only with one's feelings. :-)

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    7. I figure most of the time we see 'Men' as a race, the author is borrowing from Tolkien.

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