I’m thinking about free will today. Discussions of free will vs determinism are interesting, in part because the concepts involved are incoherent. Free will is frequently discussed as synonymous with randomness; that is to say, a choice is only free if there were some possibility of choosing the other option.

But this is easy to reduce to absurdity. Given a choice of cake or death over a million parallel choices you are unlikely to choose death even once; do we then conclude that your choice was not free? Certainly it was deterministic; there is nothing about either you, cake, or death that would lead you to choose the latter over the former. But does that mean it wasn’t free? If there were some random element that caused you to spontaneously choose death 20% of the time, would that make you more free, or less?

Isn’t freedom itself deterministic, because it implies being free to choose that which is consistent with our desires?

This raises other questions. First, are our desires formed through a strictly deterministic process? If there is another element to that process, what is it? Randomness? Is it possible to envision something neither deterministic nor random? Either a thing is the result of another thing, or it is the result of nothing at all, so what exactly are we looking for when we look for this elusive ‘free’ element.

Second, why is determinism unsatisfying, even when it means being able to do exactly that thing that we want at every given moment? I think this comes down to the sense of self and the distinction between internal and external processes. If we imagine the whole world including our own brains as a vast deterministic machine distinct in some way from ourselves, then we feel trapped inside it, our choices forced upon us by ‘outside’ forces.

On the other hand, when we talk about deterministic processes as internal (“I stayed home, because I felt like taking the day off”) there is nothing sinister about them and we are quite comfortable. We’re aware that there were factors pushing toward the other decision, but also of those factors being weighed and found wanting. We’re less likely to be spooked by the deterministic quality of the process than by its random qualities – if we skipped work and simply couldn’t explain why, that could be upsetting in a very similar way to the fear of being trapped in the machine.

So it is perhaps our intimate awareness and sense of ownership of these internal deterministic processes that makes them comfortable and satisfying to us, contrasted with equally deterministic external compulsions.

I think that perhaps religious experience often involves expanding this sense of ‘ownership’ – feelings of being part of a great universal plan, enlightenment and oneness with the universe may all involve moving that line between the threatening set of external processes and the comforting internal one. Conversely moving that line inward and seeing our thoughts and feelings as something beyond our control very quickly creates a terrifying sense of dissociation, alienation and wrongness.

Along the same lines free will can also be seen as a negative trait, not so much a thing in itself as a quality of resistance to external control. In this sense whether you have it or not becomes less an existential question and more of a practical one: How effective are you at being free? And how effective are the forces arrayed against you?

The answer to this question varies depending on whether we’re talking about ‘you’ specifically, or you in the broader sense of a community or a population. It’s still quite difficult to predict and control the behaviour of a single individual, but if you had access to a huge population of people, if you could divide them up by demographics, run repeated tests on them and gather feedback about their reactions, you could soon control them very easily. Show them the right message and they’ll not only behave as you want, they’ll also share that message with everyone they know. Sure, not everyone will play along, but you don’t need to drive the occasional black sheep if you can drive the herd.

On the End of a World

Long-running Massively Multiplayer Online game City of Heroes is due to close this year. While the game remains profitable and has around 100,000 active users, the publisher NCSoft has decided it doesn’t fit with the company’s focus. Rather than sell the game to another publisher, they immediately laid off the 80 employees of developer Paragon Studios, leaving the game with a skeleton staff until they lay it to rest by the end of November.

The game has been running for 8 years – I’ve heard from people who have grown up there, who have proposed to wives and husbands in-game, or who have introduced their children to it as they become old enough. These people face losing their old haunts, places they often regard as an extension of their hometown. The community faces being torn apart.

The first point I’d like to make is that this isn’t a game anymore; the ‘game’ aspect of it is, at this point, something of a vestigial organ connected to the body of something much larger.

On any article or thread on the subject you will find comments from people talking about the personal importance of the community to them, or of the memories they have of the game. I’m not here to talk about that.

What I think hasn’t really been touched on elsewhere is the fact that what we’re glibly referring to as a game is in fact a priceless work of art, unprecedented in scope and sheer scale.

City of Heroes has the most versatile and easy to use character editor in the history of gaming. Yes, you can create a muscleman in spandex with a cape and a mask. But you can just as easily play an elf, a wizard, a cowboy, a robot, a dinosaur, a monocle-wearing time traveller, a fireman, a police officer, a sky pirate, a brain parasite, a private eye, an accountant, an alien, or a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue.

This is a world in which playing a cyborg elf cowboy who channels the might of the Sumerian gods is not only possible, but actually pretty normal. Players are also encouraged to write a short description of their character, his or her background and abilities.

In recent years, the game has added a feature called ‘Mission Architect’, inviting players to create content for the game; missions other players can play through and comment on. Since its inception players have built tens of thousands of additional missions. The highly customisable nature of the game also lends itself well to machinima.

Over the years, 9,000,000 people have played the game. Every single one of them has created at least one character. There are now more than 43,000,000 characters on the servers; a fictional population comparable to that of Spain.

What do you get when you ask millions of people to explain to you, in words and pictures, their idea of a superhero?

There are only around 3,000 characters in the above video, a tiny fraction of the population of the servers, but every one of them represents a real person. A person who, for whatever reason, decided that a giant panda or a fiery angel or a super-patriot with a star on his chest or a guy in pink shorts was how they wanted to be a hero.

The world of Paragon City is a vast work of participatory art, something absolutely unique and irreplaceable. It’s a glimpse into a particular corner of our collective psyche, a resource historians hundreds of years from now might relish – if it still exists.

Because right now it’s unlikely that it will. Electronic games are a new medium, MMO games even more so. The custodians of art and culture have yet to recognise it as art, or as part of our culture, or as worthy of preservation. Like the early silent films that were melted down to make boot heels, or the early episodes of Dr Who that were erased by the BBC to save on magnetic tape, it will be lost forever when the servers go down, because it was too new and too garish and too low-brow for anyone to think we’d ever seriously regret its loss.

As the campaign to save the game gets underway, we have an opportunity comparable to being able to write to the BBC in the sixties and telling them people will still want to watch Dr Who in the 21st century, to say that what’s being destroyed isn’t trash or ephemera, but part of our cultural record. Even if you’ve never played the game and never will, even if you aren’t part of that community, you can still join the calls for its preservation for the simple reason that together the players have built something huge and weird and amazing. Because what they’ve built has intrinsic artistic and historical value, and because once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back.

So what can you do? I believe the most important and easy things you can do are to sign the petition and get the word out by sharing this article or a link to CoH Titan’s ‘Save City of Heroes’ board. If you’re sharing somewhere with hashtags, use #SaveCOH. If you want to join or just see the in-game protests, instructions on getting into the game can be found here.

Edits: Corrected the age of the game, and added figures for the lifetime number of players/characters.

Tiny Lego Whores

Last week the Firefly Serenity project on LEGO CUUSOO reached the 10,000 votes needed for considering as an official licensed product. Lego considered and rejected it, giving the following explanation:

LEGO produces toys for children. Therefore all LEGO products, regardless of age target, must be content-appropriate for this core audience. With this in mind we have decided that as cool as the Serenity model is, the Firefly TV show and Serenity film contain content that is not appropriate for our core target audience of children ages 6-11. While we know this news will disappoint those who supported the project, we will not be producing this as a LEGO product.

They elaborated in a comment on Facebook:

The primary reason we have decided not to consider the Firefly IP for a LEGO product is the Inara Serra character, who is a “companion,” or prostitute. This character and her profession are central to the story in the Firefly TV series. The character is inextricably linked to the story, and it isn’t possible to produce the model and license the IP without creating a link between the LEGO brand and this character. In this process, we have made our decision for brand fit up front as it is the first logical step in the process; it is upon this basis alone that we have made our decision.

I can understand why they wouldn’t want their wholesome brand associated with women being treated as sexual commodities. Oh, wait. It would appear it’s okay to depict Jabba enslaving and trying to force himself on Leia, but Inara would irreparably damage the brand by her mere presence. SO APPARENTLY IT IS OKAY AS LONG AS SHE DOES NOT CONSENT.

This is an uncharitable interpretation of Lego’s position. A more reasonable interpretation is that Star Wars is a cash cow that saved their company from the receivers, and that like most corporations they are perfectly willing to compromise their principles when large sums of money are involved.

A separate blog post elaborated on their criteria:

Understand that we will not produce products that are related to these topics:

  • Politics and political symbols
  • Religious references including symbols, buildings, or people
  • Sex, drugs, or smoking
  • Alcohol in any present day situation
  • Swearing
  • Death, killing, blood, terrorism, or torture
  • First-person shooter video games
  • Warfare or war vehicles in any situation post-WWII to present
  • Racism, bullying, or cruelty to real life animals

This clearly disqualifies brands like Star Wars (racism, torture, genocide, mass killing, and pantheism) and Indiana Jones. The ‘present day’ exemptions also suggest that they’re writing the rules to give existing violations a pass. A modern tank isn’t any more or less a symbol of violence than a panzer tank.

One could argue that the these criteria are applied not to the brand being licensed, but to the way in which Lego presents it – for example, the burly German mechanic from Indiana Jones is shredded by a propeller in the movie, but simply has his head knocked off and goes comically running after it in the Lego game – but if that’s the case, why not simply do the same with Inara? She does a lot of things other than have sex for money. Lego isn’t compelled to even acknowledge that element of the story, any more than they have to make a Princess Leia Death Star Torture Playset, or a version of Leia chained to Jabba’s throne – oh, wait.

What really offends me about this, though, isn’t the hypocrisy, the convoluted standards, the inability to follow their own rules consistently, or even the implication that attempted rape is somehow more acceptable fare for children than implied prostitution.

It’s the fact that they rejected the Serenity model for this specific reason. Presented with a world of deranged cannibal rapist space zombies, government assassins, corruption, priests (see item 2), human experimentation and crime, they ignored all of that and made a beeline for what was apparently for them the most unacceptable and depraved element in that world: Female sexuality.

it is upon this basis alone that we have made our decision.

I don’t think for a moment that they, as individuals or a company, explicitly hate women. I praised their conduct as exemplary when they came under fire for the Lego Friends line, which was exactly the opposite of what it was accused of being. But what they are doing here is pandering to widely held and deeply sexist underlying beliefs.

Leia’s sexual abuse at the hands of Jabba, while unpleasant, does nothing to outrage these beliefs; she’s merely acting as a damsel in distress and this is an acceptable role for a woman. Inara’s willingly unchaste behaviour, on the other hand, does, and that’s why Lego fears damage to their brand from her more than they do from the sexual assaults committed by either Jabba or the Reavers.

Which raises a deeper issue. When you scrub the swastikas from the Nazis in the Indiana Jones Lego sets, you aren’t just taking away a symbol, you’re taking away an idea. You’re taking ideas out of the minds of children. Important ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the absurd playful wholesomeness of a lot of Lego products, but I’d be horrified if you told me that I shouldn’t have known about the Nazis and the things they had done when I was in the 6-11 age bracket Lego targets.

And sure, while it’s hard to argue that children of those ages should know what a courtesan is, the erasure of Inara and her crewmates reminds me of the way homosexuals were erased from my own childhood by Section 28. It’s one thing not to want to go into detail with children who are too young to understand, but that can’t justify sweeping the whole issue under the rug to keep children ‘pure’ or to protect parents from having to answer awkward questions or to appease the religious right or whatever this exaggerated wholesome veneer is supposed to achieve.

Smallville RPG: Avengers Campaign

I’ve been batting around the idea of running a Smallville campaign based on the Avengers for a while now. It’s an obvious enough idea: Take a series that shows the origins of DC heroes such as Superman and Green Arrow, and do the same thing with the Marvel universe. It’s interesting to me because it involves stripping away so much of the characters, not just down to the bare essentials but actually beyond that, and then seeing if you can still make them interesting characters and tell good stories about them.

So I decided to make some notes and share them, both for my own use and for anyone else who might want to run a similar campaign. With the success of the movie, the idea seems timely. The first question is when should it be set? In the present, with the Avengers forming sometime in the future, as with Smallville? Around 2000, with the Avengers forming today? Or a decade before they first formed in the original continuity, which would place the campaign in the 1950s?

I like the latter best. It creates an opportunity to see what the Marvel universe would be like without the floating timeline, with characters growing old and having to pass the torch to younger heroes. It’s also an interesting time in itself. You have the cold war, WWII is still recent, and Captain America is retired and working as a schoolteacher.

Of course, everyone knows that Captain America was frozen in ice after WWII, but that was actually a 1960s retcon – it didn’t actually happen! If we’re going by what the comics of the time showed, then he’s retired and working as a teacher.

Two things strike me about most of the other Avengers. They’re huge, nerdy, white, male geniuses. They’re also highly irresponsible in various ways. So let’s say you’re someone working for the powers that be in 1952 – Nick Fury, maybe. You have some brilliant but troubled teenagers, and the greatest hero of WWII refusing to punch anyone, but wanting to play teacher. Why not put them together? You don’t need to teach the youngsters to be smart, but if someone can instill some moral values and patriotism in them, why – maybe one of these crazy kids could help America beat the reds one day!

So, falling back on the ‘everyone knows each other at school’ trope, but it actually makes a lot of sense here. Tony Stark ran a company making arms for the government; Bruce Banner built bombs for the government; Hank Pym envisioned his reduction formula allowing whole armies to be loaded onto a single aeroplane.

Steve Rogers

Steve Rogers Captain America

Steve doesn’t really like fighting. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody; he just doesn’t like bullies. The idea of a costumed superhero hasn’t really become a normal part of life in the Marvel universe yet (despite his actions during the war, and the activities of the various golden age heroes). When he gets home he doesn’t look for new enemies to fight, he looks for ways he can contribute constructively, and for him teaching is the most noble way he can find. His arc will probably involve him dealing with his students and gradually learning that the world still needs Captain America.





Bruce BannerBruce Banner The Incredible Hulk

Bruce’s father, Brian Banner, feared that his son was genetically damaged due to his father’s proximity to the early A-bomb tests. This lead him to abuse Bruce, and finally ended up killing Bruce’s mother as she tried to protect him. Bruce was a troubled, nerdy youth, who tried to blow up his high school with a bomb of his own design, and who at college killed his own father in a brawl on his mother’s grave. So the key to this character is to realise that //he is already the Hulk//. The gamma bomb just unlocks that side of him and makes it big and green. He’s already a troubled soul capable of incredible violence, and really just wants to be left alone.





Tony StarkAnthony Stark Iron Man

Tony Stark learned to take responsibility for his actions when he was injured by shrapnel from weapons his company sold. This younger Stark will have had no such epiphany, so where’s his story going to go? I think that the best arc for him might be from feckless playboy to ruthless arms dealer. Early on he could simply be living for today and squandering his talents; later in the series, with his parents death in an auto accident, he could be taking on the mantle of his father, possibly becoming a quasi-villain as he tries to build on his father’s legacy, regardless of the consequences – while never quite losing his playboy streak. The story needs to set him up for his fall and rebirth. Also, I like the idea of him being tinkering already, probably with cars, building and driving a big red and gold hot rod to impress the chicks.





Donald BlakeDonald Blake The Mighty Thor

The movie kind of missed the point here, I feel. In the original tales of Thor, he was an impatient, murderous bonehead who tried to solve every problem by killing someone. In the comics when Odin sent his son to Earth to learn, he forgot his true nature and grew up believing he was an ordinary joe with a bad leg. He learned what it was like to be weak, to be crippled, to be a scholar, to be a healer. He learned patience and compassion. When he recovered his powers and memories that insight stayed with him, and made him the far more admirable figure we see in the comics.

Thor lived as Donald Blake for 10 years prior to discovering his powers, so at the start of the series he could be newly arrived on Earth – perhaps as a ‘John Doe’ with no memory of his past. He won’t have had any time to learn humility yet, so he’ll probably be frustrated, ill-tempered and impatient, needing the help of his friends to grow into the man he’s meant to be. That’s what his story needs to be about. It’s not clear how he became crippled; he may start out that way, but it could be interesting if it happens in the course of the series.


Hank PymHank Pym Ant Man/Giant Man

This one’s harder; I can see why they left him out of the movie. To begin with he’s just a scientist making cool stuff with no particular backstory or motivation. When Janet shows up flashbacks reveal that he had a wife who was killed by the Soviets on their honeymoon. She was a communist defector who for some reason decided it would be perfectly safe to honeymoon in Hungary. Janet happens to look just like her, and Pym initially resists his interest in her as she’s much younger than he is and he is afraid to love again.

The 1980s domestic abuse plot he was involved in has cast a pall over his character, culminating in the messed up excuse for a human being that was Ultimate Giant Man. Let’s forget about that. Pym debuted in Tales to Astonish #27, 1962, in a tale about a scientist who tests shrinking technology on himself and ends up being chased by bugs. It wasn’t a superhero story, but a few months later they brought him back as Ant-Man. In addition to figuring out how to shrink, grow, and control insects, Hank invented artificial intelligence, building Ultron and the Vision. He also injected his girlfriend with insect DNA to allow her to fly and shoot bolts of bioelectricity.

His backstory is just not very good. It starts when he marries Maria; so we’d have to wait for the end of the series to see him marry a girl and lose her and decide to devote his life to science. All the interesting stuff happens when Janet shows up, so it’s tempting to just make him a young man in love with exploring the secrets of the universe, bring the events of The Man in the Ant Hill forward to the time of the series, and have Janet show up early, being the same age as Hank.

I’m not really sure what to do with him, but one possibility is to present him as the consummate scientist, a bit reckless, absent minded, loves to poke at things to find out what they do. Kind of like Richard Feynman, but with more of a propensity to accidentally build killer robots.

Janet Van DyneJanet Van Dyne The Wasp

Pym’s girlfriend and assistant. She came to him during his run as Ant-Man seeking his aid in getting revenge for her father, a brilliant scientist killed when he accidentally summoned a beast from another dimension. Pym did what any gentleman would do – injected her with insect cells, shrunk her to miniscule size, and started dating her. She’s often been depicted as sort of ditzy, and certainly as clothing-obsessed. I’d like to keep the clothes horse aspect of her personality, but also focus on her obvious determination and ability to accept crazy shit. She let the crazy guy with the ants experiment on her so she could avenge her father after he was killed by an alien. I like the idea of her getting her powers early in the series, and being ‘super’ well before anyone else. She’s sometimes seen as kind of a joke so making her the heavy hitter, the Avengers equivalent of Smallville’s Clark, might be fun.

Another good thing about both Ant-Man and the Wasp’s powers is that they can be exercised in secret. They could be active as superheroes from fairly early in the series without anyone knowing about it.


Clint Barton & Natalia Romanova

Hawkeye is a circus performer and doesn’t get the idea to be a superhero until he sees Iron Man years later; he also gets off to a rocky start when he falls for and tries to protect the Russian spy Natalia Romanova. It might work to run with that – have him meet Natalia early, and run them as potential antagonists for the other characters.

I should like to begin, if I may, with this pair of videos. In the first, Carl Sagan talks about space, and the evolution of mankind from fragile, humble beginnings to the hopefully better creatures that we’ll be by the time we leave the planet.

I’ve always been interested in transhumanism, but a lot of the dialogue and fiction on the subject is strikingly soulless and mechanical. I remember reading a couple of books by Stephen Baxter. One was a sequel to H.G. Wells The Time Machine, the other was Manifold: Time.

In both cases I was struck by how incredibly unimaginative they were. The time traveller goes forward in time and encounters a species of noble, peaceful Morlocks living in earth orbit (a transparent rejection of the original book’s association of technical knowledge and cannibalism.) Their orbital station should be a place of incredible wonders, but instead it consists of vast featureless rooms of black rubber. Further on, he encounters beings who consist of writhing pyramids of homogenous nanomachines. Further still, he finds the ‘perfect world’, where the squid-like beings (reminiscent of Wells’ Martians) from the end of the first book have ordered all matter and energy according to the will of intellect. Again, it’s boring and homogenous. In Time, a man even goes to the future and is able to exist briefly in the simulated lossless computing substrate that exists after the heat death of the universe, occupied by our most distant descendants. What wonders might he find there? Well, according to Baxter, he find a hotel room, takes a dump, and goes home.

A meaningless life, extended indefinitly, is yet meaningless. –Miracleman

More than the ability to control energy and organise information, human evolution needs soul and imagination, the ability to identify what’s best in us and the ability to form a sense of purpose that goes beyond mere survival and conquest of the world around us. This horrible Wired article is a great example of someone championing science without knowing what science is or what it’s for, and rejecting the whole world of abstract ideas in favour of a false sense of certainty.

Dresden Codak, in particular during the Hob story arc, presents a more soulful version of transhumanism, focusing less on the technology and more on the sense of hope for a better future, with frequent reference to Metropolis and it’s idea that “The Mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!”

They see the sun go down, but they don’t see it rise.

An explicit defense of transhumanism is Diaz’ piece A Thinking Ape’s Critique of Trans-Simianism, which notably states:

In living so long and spending so much time ‘thinking,’ do we not also run the risk of becoming a cold, passionless race incapable of experiencing our two emotions (fear and not fear)?

As well as being funny, this line deftly calls into question the assumption that, in evolving, we will become less subtle and interesting creatures, when our evolution to date has made us far more subtle and interesting. I think this assumption arises in the first place from listening to guys like Baxter, who eagerly envision us becoming a species of vaguely autistic super-engineers. But perhaps it has earlier roots. Wells in particular repeatedly warned us of the dangers of intellect without emotion, through his literally heartless, vampiric Martians and cannibalistic Morlocks.

Which brings me, quite neatly, to our second film. It’s an edited version of Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator which has been doing the rounds on Facebook. I’ve never head Chaplin speak before; I confess I didn’t even realise he was British!

It’s tempting to question the agenda of the editor here; using a string of democratically elected presidents to illustrate the section on dictators seems disingenous. On the other hand, perhaps it’s a good reminder that we aren’t quite as free and democratic as we’re accustomed to believing.

It’s also easy to be wary of the enthusiasm lavished on this film by commenters, and the simplicity of its message. It’s nothing new – science, progress, peace, kindness, democracy, freedom, but it’s rare these days to see it stated with such eloquence and direct sincerity.