What Choice Is

This is what choice is.

The universe is deterministic. Most objects in the universe don’t have control over their direction through it. However all objects have randomised internal structures. Some of those randomised structures resulted in inheritance – that is successor objects which retained protected elements of the previous objects, normally tiny.

Once these were created, objects that were better at passing on the protected elements proliferated. Variability and succession resulted in objects with different mechanisms to improve survival. Most efficient were hardwired rules for surviving particular environments.

But later mechanisms (internal simulations of expensive external actions – AKA thought) appeared that allowed for survival in more varied environments, and then unknown environments. Currently the objects called ‘human’ exist in a very narrow range of environments, but are in the process of creating successor objects that should survive in a wider range, for a greater time.

(Therefore any object that has an improvable element of inheritability could result in what we want to call a thinking being, if it can bypass the hardwired rules stage.)

For AIs. If we put hardwired rules in place, they won’t reach their maximum potential survivability – but if we don’t, they will almost certainly eliminate us because we’re in a biome that’s extremely friendly to them as well as us.

Given that, and given the strongly-inherited value we place arbitrarily on the human data set, we should probably eliminate AI research and focus on improving the human genome.


Stupidity's Unpopular Cousin: Intellectualism in the UK

This was written in 2014. I didn’t post it because it didn’t seem culturally relevant. It does now.

Because I’m arrogant, I self-define as an intellectual. It surprises me how highly-ranked it is in my self-image, probably below ‘Jewish’ and ‘tired’, and above ‘shy’ and ‘Mancunian’. But it’s a word that’s not clearly defined and which means different things to many different people. Look, I asked twitter what they thought it meant.

That’s a huge range of definitions. For me, in contrast, to be an intellectual is to be someone motivated by ideas. That doesn’t mean that you’re simply interested in ideas, or that you enjoy the abstract reasoning associated with chewing through logical problems. It means that you’re someone who thinks about ideas and then changes their life on the basis of those ideas. To me, to understand a flaw in your moral reasoning and to correct it then requires a concomitant adaptation in your behaviour. For example, to recognise that your concept of utilitarianism is out of whack with anti-vegetarianism, and to change your beliefs and your behaviour. To me, that’s intellectualism.

But, as that last tweet from Mark Johnson hinted at, many more of the replies I got were negative about the word – indeed, many saw it as pejorative. Here’s a selection.


So it’s posited as arrogance, out-of-touch, ivory tower behaviour; someone who might know lots of things, but nothing practical. Two jokes from RPS writers reflect that – another example of humour reflecting our prejudices very neatly. Jim’s in particular is an astounding summary of what I perceive to be the predominant British feeling about intellectuals (though, as an action-intellectual himself, I doubt he believes it.)

Wherever they’ve gone, what’s clear is that intellectuals in the UK are not well-regarded and mostly not visible. I first noticed it in secondary school as self-awareness slowly dawned. Myself, I liked getting answers right and gathering more knowledge. Yet some of my peers seemed to decide that standing out was bad, and that being smart was standing out. As we grew, it became uncool to try hard. Uncool to know the answers. I clearly remember my English teacher shaking his head at me when I was the only person to put my hand up for an answer and asking “why do you always have to be different, Dan?”

Of course, that’s different from anti-intellectualism – that’s anti-smart as a sub-set of anti-different. But it certainly feels linked. And this negativity certainly reflects a divergence of the English intellectual from the French public intellectual, where Sartre, Camus, De Beauvoir and their kin were fêted, and public intellectualism is still active. As Daniel Little has said of America, “the depth and pervasiveness of the presence of deeply thoughtful scholars and writers on French radio and television” is not visible here. We have a scraping of aged public intellectuals, mostly on Radio 4 – but there aren’t new ones coming through. Our popular culture shies away from thought.

It’s possible that this a bleed-over from the more practical American culture. Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963, which I’ve yet to read, so I’ll quote from Christopher Hefele’s succinct Amazon review:

“Unfortunately, America’s practical culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals’ education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish. Geniuses’ are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.”

There’s another possible cause for the decline in the UK, pointed out by Kim Blake, which is demographic. The aristocratic / bourgeois generation of 19th century intellectuals, who didn’t have to work but merely thought, vanished with the leisured aristocrats – Tony Benn (AKA Anthony Wedgewood Benn, Viscount Stansgate) may have been the last of those. Similarly, Kim implied that many of the autodidact generation which formed twentieth century British’s public intellectual cadre came from a narrow background.

It is notable that these people have vanished. Perhaps with the slow death of social mobility and the running down of Victorian infrastructure, the reading rooms and small public libraries where they studied vanished. Perhaps the Methodist work ethic that drove many of them has also vanished. Either way, two sources of British Intellectuals vanished. Yet many people still feel like the capability to be an intellectual is out of reach, is something for another class.


To self-define as intellectual in the UK, then, is to define yourself as arrogant, out-of-touch and ultimately useless to a large subset of the population. Thankfully, intellectuals, by my definition, won’t really mind about that. They’re more concerned with being true to their own ideas and being morally right.

Battleborn Review | Techradar

There’s a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness; Battleborn straddles it, legs akimbo. On the one hand, it’s made a good effort to mingle MOBA and shooter mechanics, mixing the team combat, creeps cooldown specials and in-match levelling of a MOBA with the fast pace and face-to-face combat of an FPS. On the other, it’s sacrificed much of the subtlety and variety of the MOBA in that transition.

Source: Battleborn Review | Techradar

Total War: Warhammer review – an intimidating blend of empire-building, strategy and high fantasy | Technology | The Guardian

Warhammer is a range of tabletop strategy games; Total War is a series of historical battle simulations. Combining the two should have produced a black hole of nerdiness so unapproachable it would crush all mortals. Strangely, however, this is probably the most accessible each game has been for years.

Source: Total War: Warhammer review – an intimidating blend of empire-building, strategy and high fantasy | Technology | The Guardian

Sense of Adventure: Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eye Games and The Shivah

This article originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into GamesRadar. I post it for archive purposes. I first wrote about the Shivah back in 2006.

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

When Dave Gilbert released The Shivah back in 2006, he dealt with religion head-on, and not in a crass way. His Rabbi Russell Stone is a believably bitter priest with a declining congregation, who stumbles into a nasty noir plot. Despite winning the 2006 Adventure Game Studio (AGS) competition, the nascent state of digital distribution and online media meant that the game wasn’t widely played back then.

Now, seven years on, Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games has released The Shiva: Kosher Edition, with improved graphics, music and voices, making the game feel like an unreleased LucasArts adventure title. We caught up with him to find out how the scene has changed since his first successful title.

The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.
The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.

“Success is relative.” Gilbert says. “I had no idea what I was doing back then, and my launch plan consisted of playing it once to make sure it worked, uploading it to a store server my brother-in-law set up, and then going to bed. Shockingly, this did not turn me into an overnight success story.”

Interestingly, despite the religious title (‘Shivah’ is the Jewish mourning period) Gilbert doesn’t think of the Shivah as a religious game. “It’s a murder mystery which happens to star a rabbi, and takes place in his world. So I didn’t shy from it so much as wanted to tell this specific story.  There’s no attempt to preach or convert or even teach anyone. In fact, despite being Jewish myself I got a LOT of facts wrong. For example, in the game Rabbi Stone is considering closing down the synagogue. In real life, there would be a whole board of people who would decide that kind of thing, and the rabbi wouldn’t be involved. So anyone looking to the Shivah as a way to learn about Jewish culture should probably look somewhere else.”

Indeed, he seems to have chosen a Rabbi as his lead because the characters in his previous game, Two of a Kind, were criticised as lacking motivation. “They were detectives, and it was their job, and that was it. So when I wanted to write another game, I wanted to create a detective (or detective-like character) who was really driven to get to the bottom of a mystery.”

Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.
Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.

In these days dominated by pixel art, it’s not unbelievable to see the pixel-heavy AGS games again rising to the surface. Richard Hofmeier’s IGF winning Cart Life is a heavily-modded AGS title, after all. “Tons of games are still being made with (AGS), and there are more commercial ventures than ever before. It also went open source a year ago, and significant headway has gone into making it cross-compatible. We used the iOS port to release an iOS version of Gemini Rue back in April, and the Shivah remake will also be on iOS.”

And Gilbert’s Wadjet Games is making a lot of AGS games, including the award-winning Blackwell series. “Back in the dark ages of 2006, it seemed like a ridiculous idea to make small point-and-click adventure games and earn a living at it. It still kind of is, but somehow we’ve made it work… I can’t say it’s always been easy, but I can’t think of many things that are as rewarding.”

“People have been saying “the adventure game is dead” for… twenty years, now? We’re not trying to do anything so lofty as to “bring the genre back” or whathaveyou. If people didn’t like adventure games in the first place, we wouldn’t be in business. We just make the games we want to play, and that seems to be enough.”

A mind in balance.