Kimoyo Beads

One of the ubiquitous technologies seen in Black Panther is the kimoyo bead. They’re liberally scattered all over the movie like tasty, high-tech croutons. These marble-sized beads are made of vibranium and are more core to Wakandan’s lives than cell phones are to ours. Let’s review the 6 uses seen in the film.

1. Contact-EMP bombs

We first see kimoyo beads when Okoye equips T’Challa with a handful to drop on the kidnapper caravan in the Sambisa forest. As he leaps from the Royal Talon, he flings these, which flatten as they fall, and guide themselves to land on the hoods of the caravan. There they emit an electromagnetic pulse that stops the vehicles in their tracks. It is a nice interaction that does not require much precision or attention from T’Challa.

2. Comms

Wakandans wear bracelets made of 11 kimoyo beads around their wrists. If they pull the comms bead and place it in the palm, it can project very lifelike volumetric displays as part of realtime communication. It is unclear why the bead can’t just stay on the wrist and project at an angle to be facing the user’s line of sight, as it does when Okoye presents to tribal leaders (below.)

We see a fascinating interaction when T’Challa and W’Kabi receive a call at the same time, and put their bracelets together to create a conference call with Okoye.

The scaled-down version of the projection introduces many of the gaze matching problems identified in the book. Similarly to those scenes in Star Wars, we don’t see the conversation from the other side. Is Okoye looking up at giant heads of T’Challa and W’Kabi? Unlikely. Wakanda is advanced enough to manage gaze correction in such displays.

Let me take a moment to appreciate how clever this interaction is from a movie maker’s perspective. It’s easy to imagine each of them holding their own bead separately and talking to individual instances of Okoye’s projection. (Imagine being in a room with a friend and both of you are on a group call with a third party.) But in the scene, she turns to address both T’Challa and W’Kabi. Since the system is doing body-and-face gaze correction, the two VP displays would look slightly different, possibly confusing the audience into thinking these were two separate people on the call. Wakandans would be used to understanding these nuances, but us poor non-Wakandan’s are not.

Identical Okoyes ensures (at least) one of the displays is looking at something weird. It’s confusing.
This is confusing.
Having gaze correction so both Okoyes are looking at T’Challa when she’s talking to him makes it look like there are two different characters. It’s confusing.
This is also confusing.

The shared-display interaction helps bypass these problems and make the technology immediately understandable and seamless.

Later Shuri also speaks with Okoye via communication bead. During this conversation, Shuri removes another bead, and tosses it into a display to show an image and dossier of Killmonger. Given that she’s in her lab, it’s unclear why this gesture is necessary rather than, say, just looking toward a display and thinking, “Show me,” letting the AI Griot interpret from the context what to display.

A final communication happens immediately after as Shuri summons T’Challa to the the lab to learn about Killmonger. In this screenshot, it’s clear that the symbol for the comms bead is an asterisk or star, which mimics the projection rats of the display, and so has some nice semantics to help users learning which symbols do what.

3. Presentation

 In one scene, Okoye gives the tribe rulers a sitrep using her kimoyo beads as a projector. Here she is showing the stolen Wakandan artifact. Readers of the book will note the appearance of projection rays that are standard sci-fi signals that what is seen is a display. A lovely detail in the scene is how Okoye uses a finger on her free hand to change the “slide” to display Klawe. (It’s hard to see the exact gesture, but looks like she presses the projection bead.) We know from other scenes in the movie that the beads are operated by thought-command. But that would not prevent a user from including gestures as part of the brain pattern that triggers an event, and would make a nice second-channel confirmation as discussed in UX of Speculative Brain-Computer Inputs post.

4. Remote piloting

When T’Challa tours Shuri’s lab, she introduces him to remote access kimoyo beads. They are a little bigger than regular beads and have a flared, articulated base. (Why they can’t just morph mid-air like the ones we see in the kidnapper scene?) These play out in the following scene when the strike team needs to commandeer a car to chase Klawe’s Karavan. Oyoke tosses one on the hood on a parked car, its base glows purple, and thereafter Shuri hops into a vibranium-shaped simulacrum of the car in her lab, and remotely operates it.

A quick note: I know that the purple glow is there for the benefit of the audience, but it certainly draws attention to itself, which it might not want to do in the real world.

In the climactic battle of the tribes with Killmonger, Shuri prints a new bracelet and remote control bead for Agent Ross. She places the bracelet on him to enable him to remote pilot the Royal Talon. It goes by very quickly, and the scene is lit quite sparsely, but the moment she puts it on him, you can see that the beads are held together magnetically.

5. Eavesdropping

When Agent Ross is interrogating the captured Klawe, we get a half-second shot to let us know that a kimoyo bead has been placed on his shoulder, allowing T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia to eavesdrop on the conversation. The output is deliveredby a flattened bone-conducting speaker bead behind their left hears.

6. Healing

Later in the scene, when Killmonger’s bomb grievously wounds Agent Ross in his spine, T’Challa places one of Nakia’s kimoyo beads onto the wound, stabilizing Ross long enough to ferry him to Wakanda where Shuri can fully tend to him. The wound conveniently happens to be kimoyo-bead sized, but I expect that given its shape-shifting powers, it could morph to form a second-skin over larger wounds.


I wondered if kimoyo beads were just given to Wakandan royalty, but it’s made clear in the scene where T’Challa and Nakia walk through the streets of Birnin Zana that every citizen has a bracelet. There is no direct evidence in the film, but given the pro-social-ness throughout, I want to believe that all citizens have free access to the beads, equipping each of them to participate equitably in the culture.

So, most of the interaction is handled through thought-command with gestural augmentation. This means that most of our usual concerns of affordances and constraints are moot. The one thing that bears some comment is the fact that there are multiple beads on the bracelet with different capabilities. How does a user know which bead does what?

As long as the beads can do their job in place on the wrist, I don’t think it matters. As long as all of the beads are reading the user’s thoughts, only the one that can respond need respond. The others can disregard the input. In the real world you’d need to make sure that one thought isn’t interpretable as multiple things, a problem discussed on my team at IBM as disambiguation. Or if they are you must design an interaction where the user can help disambiguate the input, or tell the system which meaning they intend. We never this edge case in Black Panther. 

It seems that some of the beads have specialized functions that cannot be performed by another, each has several symbols engraved into it, the indentions of which glow white for easy identification. The glow is not persistent across all uses, so it must be either context-aware and/or a setting that users can think to change. But even when not lit, the symbols are clear, and clearly distinguishable, so once the user learns the symbols, the labeling should help.


Black Votes Matter

Today is an important day in the United States. It’s election day 2020. Among one of the most important days in U.S. politics, ever. Among Trump’s litany of outrageous lies across his presidency is this whopper: “I have done more for Black Americans than anybody, except for the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.” (Pause for your spit take and cleaning your screen.)

As infuriating and insulting as this statement is emotionally (like, fuck you for adding “possible” in there, like it’s somehow possible that you’ve done more than freed our black citizens from slavery, you maggot-brained, racist, malignant narccicist) let’s let the Brookings institute break down why, if you believe Black Lives Matter, you need to get out there and vote blue all the way down the ticket.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/02/us/ocoee-massacre-100th-anniversary-trnd/index.html

You should read that whole article, but some highlights/reminders

  • Trump ended racial sensitivity training, and put a ban on trainings that utilize critical race theory
  • Hate crimes increased over 200% in places where Trump held a campaign rally in 2016
  • He dismissed the Black Lives Matters movement, said there were “fine people” among white supremacist groups, and rather than condemning the (racist, not gay) Proud Boys, told them to “stand by.”
  • Not a single one of his 53 confirmed appeals court judges circuit justices is black.
  • The criminal mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic has killed twice as many black Americans as it has white Americans. (Don’t forget he fired the pandemic response team.)

If you are reading this on election day, and have not already done so, please go vote blue. Know that if you are in line even when the polls officially closed, they have to stay open for the entire line to vote. If you have voted, please help others in need. More information is below.

If you are reading this just after election day, we have every evidence that Trump is going to try and declare the election rigged if he loses (please, please let it be when he loses to a massive blue waver). You can help set the expectation among your circle of friends, family, and work colleagues that we won’t know the final results today. We won’t know it tomorrow. We may have a better picture at the end of the week, but it will more likely take until late November to count everyone’s vote, and possibly until mid December to certify everyone’s vote.

And that’s what we do in a liberal democracy. We count everyone’s vote, however long that takes. To demand it in one day during a pandemic is worse than a toddler throwing a “I want it now” tantrum. And we are so very sick of having a toddler in this position.

By Christian Bloom

UX of Speculative Brain-Computer Inputs

So much of the technology in Black Panther appears to work by mental command (so far: Panther Suit 2.0, the Royal Talon, and the vibranium sand tables) that…

  • before we get into the Kimoyo beads, or the Cape Shields, or the remote driving systems…
  • before I have to dismiss these interactions as “a wizard did it” style non-designs
  • before I review other brain-computer interfaces in other shows…

…I wanted check on the state of the art of brain-computer interfaces (or BCIs) and see how our understanding had advanced since I wrote the Brain interface chapter in the book, back in the halcyon days of 2012.

Note that I am deliberately avoiding the tech side of this question. I’m not going to talk about EEG, PET, MRI, and fMRI. (Though they’re linked in case you want to learn more.) Modern brain-computer interface (or BCI) technologies are evolving too rapidly to bother with an overview of them. They’ll change in the real world by the time I press “publish,” much less by the time you read this. And sci-fi tech is most often a black box anyway. But the human part of the human-computer interaction model changes much more slowly. We can look to the brain as a relatively-unalterable component of the BCI question, leading us to two believability questions of sci-fi BCI.

  1. How can people express intent using their brains?
  2. How do we prevent accidental activation using BCI?

Let’s discuss each.

1. How can people express intent using their brains?

In the see-think-do loop of human-computer interaction…

  • See (perceive) has been a subject of visual, industrial, and auditory design.
  • Think has been a matter of human cognition as informed by system interaction and content design.
  • Do has long been a matter of some muscular movement that the system can detect, to start its matching input-process-output loop. Tap a button. Move a mouse. Touch a screen. Focus on something with your eyes. Hold your breath. These are all ways of “doing” with muscles.
The “bowtie” diagram I developed for my book on agentive tech.

But the first promise of BCI is to let that doing part happen with your brain. The brain isn’t a muscle, so what actions are BCI users able to take in their heads to signal to a BCI system what they want it to do? The answer to this question is partly physiological, about the way the brain changes as it goes about its thinking business.

Ah, the 1800s. Such good art. Such bad science.

Our brains are a dense network of bioelectric signals, chemicals, and blood flow. But it’s not chaos. It’s organized. It’s locally functionalized, meaning that certain parts of the brain are predictably activated when we think about certain things. But it’s not like the Christmas lights in Stranger Things, with one part lighting up discretely at a time. It’s more like an animated proportional symbol map, with lots of places lighting up at the same time to different degrees.

Illustrative composite of a gif and an online map demo.

The sizes and shapes of what’s lighting up may change slightly between people, but a basic map of healthy, undamaged brains will be similar to each other. Lots of work has gone on to map these functional areas, with researchers showing subjects lots of stimuli and noting what areas of the brain light up. Test enough of these subjects and you can build a pretty good functional map of concepts. Thereafter, you can take a “picture” of the brain, and you can cross-reference your maps to reverse-engineer what is being thought.

From Jack Gallant’s semantic maps viewer.

Right now those pictures are pretty crude and slow, but so were the first actual photographs in the world. In 20–50 years, we may be able to wear baseball caps that provide a much more high-resolution, real time inputs of concepts being thought. In the far future (or, say, the alternate history of the MCU) it is conceivable to read these things from a distance. (Though there are significant ethical questions involved in such a technology, this post is focused on questions of viability and interaction.)

From Jack Gallant’s semantic map viewer

Similarly the brain maps we have are only for a small percentage of an average adult vocabulary. Jack Gallant’s semantic map viewer (pictured and linked above) shows the maps for about 140 concepts, and estimates of average active vocabulary is around 20,000 words, so we’re looking at a tenth of a tenth of what we can imagine (not even counting the infinite composability of language). But in the future we will not only have more concepts mapped, more confidently, but we will also have idiographs for each individual, like the personal dictionary in your smart phone.

All this is to say that our extant real world technology confirms that thoughts are a believable input for a system. This includes linguistic inputs like “Turn on the light” and “activate the vibranium sand table” and “Sincerely, Chris” and even imagining the desired change, like a light changing from dark to light. It might even include subconscious thoughts that yet to be formed into words.

2. How do we prevent accidental activation?

But we know from personal experience, we don’t want all our thoughts to be acted on. Take, for example, those thoughts you’re feeling hangry, or snarky, or dealing with a jerk-in-authority. Or those texts and emails that you’ve composed in the heat of the moment but wisely deleted before they get you in trouble.

If a speculative BCI is being read by a general artificial intelligence, it can manage that just like a smart human partner would.

He is composing a blog post, reasons the AGI, so I will just disregard his thought that he needs to pee.

And if there’s any doubt, an AGI can ask. “Did you intend me to include the bit about pee in the post?” Me: “Certainly not. Also BRB.” (Readers following the Black Panther reviews will note that AGI is available to Wakandans in the form of Griot.)

If AGI is unavailable to the diegesis (and it would significantly change any diegesis of which it is a part) then we need some way to indicate when a thought is intended as input and when it isn’t. Having that be some mode of thought feels complicated and error-prone, like when programmers have to write regex expressions that escape escape characters. Better I think is to use some secondary channel, like a bodily interaction. Touch forefinger and pinky together, for instance, and the computer understands you intend your thoughts as input.

So, for any BCI that appears in sci-fi, we would want to look for the presence or absence of AGI as a reasonableness interpreter, and, barring that, for some alternate-channel mechanism for indicating deliberateness. We would also hope to see some feedback and correction loops to understand the nuances of the edge-case interactions, but these are rare in sci-fi.

Even more future-full

This all points to the question of what seeing/perceiving via a BCI might be. A simple example might be a disembodied voice that only the user can hear.

A woman walks alone at night. Lost in thoughts, she hears her AI whisper to her thoughts, “Ada, be aware that a man has just left a shadowy doorstep and is following, half a block behind you. Shall I initialize your shock shoes?”

What other than language can be written to the brain in the far future? Images? Movies? Ideas? A suspicion? A compulsion? A hunch? How will people know what are their own thoughts and what has been placed there from the outside? I look forward to the stories and shows that illustrate new ideas, and warn us of the dark pitfalls.

Vibranium sand tables

There are a number of vibranium sand tables seen in Black Panther.

  1. The horseshoe-shaped shelf in which Okoye sits as she pilots the Royal Talon. (We never see it activated.)
  2. The small sand table in the center of the Royal Talon.
  3. The big sand tables in Shuri’s lab.

You can see the Royal Talon one in the post about piloting that craft. The other two are described below.

All of these build on the given that vibranium is a very powerful substance and that Wakanda’s scientists have managed to gain a very, very sophisticated control over it.

In the Talon

This table is about a meter square, and raised off the floor around knee-height. As Okoye and T’Challa approach the traffickers in the Sambisa Forest, T’Challa approaches the table and it springs to life, showing him real-time model of the traffickers’ vehicle train. T’Challa picks up the model of the small transport truck and with a finger, wipes off its roof, revealing that there are over a dozen people huddled within. One of the figures glows amber. (It’s Nakia.) He places the truck back into the display, and the display collapses back to inert sand.

A quick critique of this interaction. The sand highlights Nakia for T’Challa, but why did it wait for him to find her truck and wipe off the top of it to look inside? It knew his goals (find Nakia), can clearly conduct a scan into the vehicle, and understood the context (she’s in one of those trucks), it should not wait for him to pick up each car and scrape off its roof to check and see which one she was in. The interface should have drawn his attention to the truck it knew she was in. This is a “stoic guru” mistake that I’ve critiqued before. You know, the computer knows all, but only tells you when you ask it. It is much more sensible for the transport truck to be glowing from the moment the table goes live, as in the comp below.

Designers: Don’t wait for users to ask just the the right thing at the right time.

Otherwise, this is a good high-tech use of the sand table for the more common meaning of “sand table,” which is a 3-dimensional surface for understanding a theatre of conflict. It doesn’t really help him run through scenarios, testing various tactics, but T’Challa is a warrior king, he can do all that in his head.

The interaction also nicely blurs the line between display and gestural interactive tool, in the same way that the Prometheus astrometrics display did. Like that other example, it would be useful for the display to distinguish when it is representing reality, and when the display is being interrupted or modified. Also, T’Challa is nice enough to put the truck back where it “belongs,” but a design would also need to handle how to respond when T’Challa put the truck back in the wrong place, or, say, crushed the truck model with his hand in fury.

In Prometheus it was an Earth, not a truck, but still focused on Africa.

Shuri’s lab

The largest table we see in the movie is in Shuri’s lab. After Black Panther challenges Killmonger and engages in battle outside the capital city, Shuri, Nakia, and Agent Ross rush down to the lab. As they approach an edge-lit hexagonal table, the vibranium sand lowers to reveal 3D-printed armor and weaponry for Shuri and Nakia to join the fight. (Though it’s not like modern 3D printing, these are powered weapons and kimoyo beads, items with very sophisticated functionality.)

Shuri outfits Ross with kimoyo beads from the print and takes off to join the fight. In the lab, the table creates a seat for Ross to remote-pilot the Royal Talon. Up on the flight deck, Shuri throws a control bead onto the Talon, and an AI in the lab named Griot announces to Agent Ross, “Remote piloting system activated.” (Hey, Trevor Noah, we hear you there!)

Around the seat, a volumetric projection of the Talon appears around him, including a 360° display just beyond the windshield that gives him a very immersive remote flying experience. We hear Shuri’s voice explain to Ross “I made it American Style for you. Get in!

Ross sits down, grabs joystick controls, and begins remote-chasing down the cargo ships that are carrying munitions to Killmonger’s War Dogs around the world. (The piloting controls and HUD for Ross are a separate issue, and will be handled in their own post.)

The moment that Ross pilots the Talon through the last cargo ship, the volumetric projection disappears and the piloting seat returns to sand, ungraciously plopping Ross down the floor level of the lab.

It is in this shot that we realize that the dark tiles of the lab’s floor are all recessed vibranium sand tables. I can count seven in the shot. So the lab is full of them.

Display material

Let’s talk for a bit about the display choices. Vibranium can change to display any color and a shape down to a fine level of detail. See the screen cap below for an example of perfectly lifelike (if scaled) representation.

This is a vibranium-powered volumetric display.
It raises the gaze matching issues we’ve seen before.

So why would it be designed so that in most cases, the display is sparkly and black like black tourmaline? Wouldn’t the truck that T’Challa picks up be most useful if it was photographically rendered? Wouldn’t the remote piloting chair be more comfortable if it had pleather- and silicone-like surfaces?

Extradiegetically, I understand the reason is because art direction. We want Wakandan tech to be visibly different than other tech in the MCU, and having it look like vibranium dust ties it back to that key plot element.

But, per the stance of this blog, I try to look for a diegetic reason. It might be a deliberate reminder of the resource on which their technological fortunes are built. And as the Okoye VP above shows, they aren’t purists about it. When detail is needed, it’s included. So perhaps this is it. That implies a great deal of sophistication on the part of the displays to know when photorealism is needed and when it is not, but the presence of Griot there tells us that they have something approaching general AI.

Missing interactions

So, just like I had to do for the Royal Talon, I have to throw my hands up about reviewing the interactions with the sand tables, because we don’t see the interactions that would give these results.

How were the mission goals communicated to the Royal Talon table? Is it programmed to activate when someone approaches it, or did T’Challa issue a mental command? How did Shuri specify those weapons and that armor? What did she do to make the ship “American style” for Ross? Is that a template? Was it Griot’s interpretation of her intention? Why did the remote piloting seat vanish the moment the mission was complete? Was this something Shuri set up in advance, or Griot’s way of telling Agent Ross to GTFO for his own safety? How does someone in the lab instruct a floor tile to leap up and become a table and do stuff? It’s almost certainly via mental commands through the kimoyo beads, but that’s conjecture. The film really provides little evidence.

On the one hand, this is appropriate for us mere non-Wakandans observing the most technologically advanced society on earth. Much of it would feel like inexplicable magic to us.

On the other, sci-fi routinely introduces us to advanced technologies, and doesn’t always eschew the explanatory interactions, so the absence is notable here. It’s magic.


Black Lives Matter

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

In the last post we grieved Chadwick Boseman’s passing. This week we’re grieving the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May her memory be a blessing. With her loss, the GOP is ratcheting up its outrageous hypocrisy by reversing a precedent that they themselves established when Obama was president. The “Moscow Mitch Rule” (oh, oops, sorry) “McConnell Rule” was that new Justices should not be appointed within a year of a general election, so the people’s voice can be taken into account. Of course, the bastards are just ignoring that now and trying to ram through one of their own before election day. This Justice will certainly be a conservative, and we know with this administration that means reactionary, loyal to tiny-hand Twittler, and racist as a Jim Crow law.

There are a few arrows in citizen’s quivers to stop this. One is to convince at least 4 Republican Senators to reject this outright hypocrisy, put country over party, and adhere to the McConnell rule.

Brilliant image by Jesse Duquette

To help put pressure where it might work, you can leave voicemails with Republican Senators who may be mulling whether to put country over party. Those 6 Senators’ names and numbers are below. Here’s a script for your message:

Hello, my name is ______. In 2016, Mitch McConnell created the principle of not confirming a Supreme Court Justice in an election year until after the next inauguration. For the legitimacy of the Court in the eyes of the people, I’m asking Senator ________ to uphold that principle by refusing to confirm a new Justice until after a new President is installed. Thank you.

—You, hopefully
  • Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; (202) 224-6665
  • Mitt Romney, Utah: (202) 224-5251
  • Susan Collins, Maine: (202) 224-2523
  • Martha McSally, Arizona: (202) 224-2235
  • Cory Gardner, Colorado: (202) 224-5941
  • Chuck Grassley, Iowa: (202) 224-3744

I’ve made my calls and left my messages. Can you do the same to stop the hypocritical Trumpian power grab that would tip the Supreme Court for generations?

UPDATE: Nevermind. Romney caved.

The Royal Talon piloting interface

Since my last post, news broke that Chadwick Boseman has passed away after a four year battle with cancer. He kept his struggles private, so the news was sudden and hard-hitting. The fandom is still reeling. Black people, especially, have lost a powerful, inspirational figure. The world has also lost a courageous and talented young actor. Rise in Power, Mr. Boseman. Thank you for your integrity, bearing, and strength.

Photo CC BY-SA 2.0,
by Gage Skidmore.

Black Panther’s airship is a triangular vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle called the Royal Talon. We see its piloting interface twice in the film.

The first time is near the beginning of the movie. Okoye and T’Challa are flying at night over the Sambisa forest in Nigeria. Okoye sits in the pilot’s seat in a meditative posture, facing a large forward-facing bridge window with a heads up display. A horseshoe-shaped shelf around her is filled with unactivated vibranium sand. Around her left wrist, her kimoyo beads glow amber, projecting a volumetric display around her forearm.

She announces to T’Challa, “My prince, we are coming up on them now.” As she disengages from the interface, retracting her hands from the pose, the kimoyo projection shifts and shrinks. (See more detail in the video clip, below.)

The second time we see it is when they pick up Nakia and save the kidnapped girls. On their way back to Wakanda we see Okoye again in the pilot’s seat. No new interactions are seen in this scene though we linger on the shot from behind, with its glowing seatback looking like some high-tech spine.

Now, these brief glimpses don’t give a review a lot to go on. But for a sake of completeness, let’s talk about that volumetric projection around her wrist. I note is that it is a lovely echo of Dr. Strange’s interface for controlling the time stone Eye of Agamatto.

Wrist projections are going to be all the rage at the next Snap, I predict.

But we never really see Okoye look at this VP it or use it. Cross referencing the Wakandan alphabet, those five symbols at the top translate to 1 2 K R I, which doesn’t tell us much. (It doesn’t match the letters seen on the HUD.) It might be a visual do-not-disturb signal to onlookers, but if there’s other meaning that the letters and petals are meant to convey to Okoye, I can’t figure it out. At worst, I think having your wrist movements of one hand emphasized in your peripheral vision with a glowing display is a dangerous distraction from piloting. Her eyes should be on the “road” ahead of her.

The image has been flipped horizontally to illustrate how Okoye would see the display.

Similarly, we never get a good look at the HUD, or see Okoye interact with it, so I’ve got little to offer other than a mild critique that it looks full of pointless ornamental lines, many of which would obscure things in her peripheral vision, which is where humans need the most help detecting things other than motion. But modern sci-fi interfaces generally (and the MCU in particular) are in a baroque period, and this is partly how audiences recognize sci-fi-ness.

I also think that requiring a pilot to maintain full lotus to pilot is a little much, but certainly, if there’s anyone who can handle it, it’s the leader of the Dora Milaje.

One remarkable thing to note is that this is the first brain-input piloting interface in the survey. Okoye thinks what she wants the ship to do, and it does it. I expect, given what we know about kimoyo beads in Wakanda (more on these in a later post), what’s happening is she is sending thoughts to the bracelet, and the beads are conveying the instructions to the ship. As a way to show Okoye’s self-discipline and Wakanda’s incredible technological advancement, this is awesome.

Unfortunately, I don’t have good models for evaluating this interaction. And I have a lot of questions. As with gestural interfaces, how does she avoid a distracted thought from affecting the ship? Why does she not need a tunnel-in-the-sky assist? Is she imagining what the ship should do, or a route, or something more abstract, like her goals? How does the ship grant her its field awareness for a feedback loop? When does the vibranium dashboard get activated? How does it assist her? How does she hand things off to the autopilot? How does she take it back? Since we don’t have good models, and it all happens invisibly, we’ll have to let these questions lie. But that’s part of us, from our less-advanced viewpoint, having to marvel at this highly-advanced culture from the outside.


Black Health Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

Thinking back to the terrible loss of Boseman: Fuck cancer. (And not to imply that his death was affected by this, but also:) Fuck the racism that leads to worse medical outcomes for black people.

One thing you can do is to be aware of the diseases that disproportionately affect black people (diabetes, asthma, lung scarring, strokes, high blood pressure, and cancer) and be aware that no small part of these poorer outcomes is racism, systemic and individual. Listen to Dorothy Roberts’ TED talk, calling for an end to race-based medicine.

If you’re the reading sort, check out the books Black Man in a White Coat by Damon Tweedy, or the infuriating history covered in Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington.

If you are black, in Boseman’s memory, get screened for cancer as often as your doctor recommends it. If you think you cannot afford it and you are in the USA, this CDC website can help you determine your eligibility for free or low-cost screening: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/screenings.htm. If you live elsewhere, you almost certainly have a better healthcare system than we do, but a quick search should tell you your options.

Cancer treatment is equally successful for all races. Yet black men have a 40% higher cancer death rate than white men and black women have a 20% higher cancer death rate than white women. Your best bet is to detect it early and get therapy started as soon as possible. We can’t always win that fight, but better to try than to find out when it’s too late to intervene. Your health matters. Your life matters.

Panther Suit 2.0

The suit that the Black Panther wears is critical to success. At the beginning of the movie, this is “just” a skintight bulletproof suit with homages to its namesake. But, after T’Challa is enthroned, Shuri takes him to her lab and outfits him with a new one with some nifty new features. This write-up is about Shuri’s 2.0 Panther Suit.

Authorizing

At the demonstration of the new suit, Shuri first takes a moment to hold up a bracelet of black Kimoyo beads (more on these in a later post) to his neck. With a bubbly computer sound, the glyphs on the beads begin to glow vibranium-purple, projecting two particular symbols on his neck. (The one that looks kind of like a reflective A, and the other that looks like a ligature of a T and a U.)

This is done without explanation, so we have to make some assumptions here, which is always shaky ground for critique.

I think she’s authorizing him to use the suit. At first I thought the interaction was her “pairing” him with the suit, but I can’t imagine that the bead would need to project something onto his skin to read his identity or DNA. So my updated guess is this is a dermal mark that, like the Wakandan tattoos, the suit will check for with a “intra-skin scan,” like the HAN/BAN concepts from the early aughts. This would enable her to authorize many people, which is, perhaps, not as secure.

This interpretation is complicated by Killmonger’s wearing one of the other Black Panther suits when he usurps T’Challa. Shuri had fled with Queen Romonda to the Jibari stronghold, so Shuri couldn’t have authorized him. Maybe some lab tech who stayed behind? If there was some hint of what’s supposed to be happening here we would have more grounds to evaluate this interaction.

There might be some hint if there was an online reference to these particular symbols, but they are not part of the Wakandan typeface, or the Andinkra symbols, or the Nsibidi symbols that are seen elsewhere in the film. (I have emails out to the creator of the above image to see if I can learn more there. Will update if I get a response.)

Activation

When she finishes whatever the bead did, she says, “Now tell it to go on.” T’Challa looks at it intensely, and the suit spreads from the “teeth” in the necklace with an insectoid computer sound, over the course of about 6 seconds.

We see him activate the suit several more times over the course of the movie, but learn nothing new about activation beyond this. How does he mentally tell it to turn it on? I presume it’s the same mental skill he’s built up across his lifetime with kimoyo beads, but it’s not made explicit in the movie.

A fun detail is that while the suit activates in 6 seconds in the lab—far too slow for action in the field considering Shuri’s sardonic critique of the old suit (“People are shooting at me! Wait! Let me put on my helmet!”)—when T’Challa uses it in Korea, it happens in under 3. Shuri must have slowed it down to be more intelligible and impressive in the lab.

Another nifty detail that is seen but not discussed is that the nanites will also shred any clothes being worn at the time of transformation, as seen at the beginning of the chase sequence outside the casino and when Killmonger is threatened by the Dora Milaje.

Hopefully they weren’t royal…oh. Oh well?

Deactivation

T’Challa thinks the helmet off a lot over the course of the movie, even in some circumstances where I am not sure it was wise. We don’t see the mechanism. I expect it’s akin to kimoyo communication, again. He thinks it, and it’s done. (n.b. “It’s mental” is about as satisfying from a designer’s critique as “a wizard did it”, because it’s almost like a free pass, but *sigh* perfectly justifiable given precedent in the movie.)

Kinetic storage & release

At the demonstration in her lab, Shuri tells T’Challa to, “Strike it.” He performs a turning kick to the mannequin’s ribcage and it goes flying. When she fetches it from across the lab, he marvels at the purple light emanating from Nsibidi symbols that fill channels in the suit where his strike made contact. She explains “The nanites have absorbed the kinetic energy. They hold it in place for redistribution.

He then strikes it again in the same spot, and the nanites release the energy, knocking him back across the lab, like all those nanites had become a million microscopic bigclaw snapping shrimp all acting in explosive concert. Cool as it is, this is my main critique of the suit.

First, the good. As a point of illustration of how cool their mastery of tech is, and how it works, this is pretty sweet. Even the choice of purple is smart because it is a hard color to match in older chemical film processes, and can only happen well in a modern, digital film. So extradiegetically, the color is new and showing off a bit.

Tactically though, I have to note that it broadcasts his threat level to his adversaries. Learning this might take a couple of beatings, but word would get around. Faithful readers will know we’ve looked at aposematic signaling before, but those kinds of markings are permanent. The suit changes as he gets technologically beefier. Wouldn’t people just avoid him when he was more glowy, or throw something heavy at him to force him to expend it, and then attack when he was weaker? More tactical I think to hold those cards close to the chest, and hide the glow.

Now it is quite useful for him to know the level of charge. Maybe some tactile feedback like a warmth or or a vibration at the medial edge of his wrists. Cinegenics win for actual movie-making of course, but designers take note. What looks cool is not always smart design.

Not really a question for me: Can he control how much he releases? If he’s trying to just knock someone out, it would be crappy if he accidentally killed them, or expected to knock out the big bad with a punch, only to find it just tickled him like a joy buzzer. But if he already knows how to mentally activate the suit, I’m sure he has the skill down to mentally clench a bit to control the output. Wizards.

Regarding Shuri’s description, I think she’s dumbing things down for her brother. If the suit actually absorbed the kinetic energy, the suit would not have moved when he kicked it. (Right?) But let’s presume if she were talking to someone with more science background, she would have been more specific to say, “absorbed some of the kinetic energy.”

Explosive release

When the suit has absorbed enough kinetic energy, T’Challa can release it all at once as a concussive blast. He punches the ground to trigger it, but it’s not clear how he signals to the suit that he wants to blast everyone around him back rather than, say, create a crater, but again, I think we can assume it’s another mental command. Wizards.

Claws

To activate the suit’s claws, T’Challa quickly extends curved fingers and holds them there, and they pop out.

This gesture is awesome, and completely fit for purpose. Shaping the fingers like claws make claws. It’s also when fingers are best positioned to withstand the raking motion. The second of hold ensures it’s not accidental activation. Easy to convey, easy to remember, easy to intuit. Kids playing Black Panther on the sidewalk would probably do the same without even seeing the movie.

We have an unanswered question about how those claws retract. Certainly the suit is smart enough to retract automatically so he doesn’t damage himself. Probably more mental commands, but whatever. I wouldn’t change a thing here.


Black Lives Matter

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives. I had something else planned for this post, but just before publication another infuriating incident has happened.

While the GOP rallies to the cause of the racist-in-chief in Charlotte, right thinking people are taking to the streets in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to protest the unjust shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake. The video is hard to watch. Watch it. It’s especially tragic, especially infuriating, because Kenosha had gone through “police reform” initiatives in 2014 meant to prevent exactly this sort of thing. It didn’t prevent this sort of thing. As a friend of mine says, it’s almost enough to make you an abolitionist.

Raysean White via TMX.news

Information is still coming in as to what happened, but here’s the narrative we understand right now: It seems that Blake had pulled over his car to stop a fight in progress. When the police arrived, he figured they had control of the situation, and he walked back to his car to leave. That’s when officers shot him in the back multiple times, while his family—who were still waiting for him in the car—watched. He’s out of surgery and stable, but rather than some big-picture to-do tonight, please donate to support his family. They have witnessed unconscionable trauma.

Blake and kids, in happier times

Several fundraisers posted to support Blake’s family have been taken down by GoFundMe for being fake, but “Justice for Jacob Blake” remains active as of Monday evening. Please donate.

Wakandan tattoo

When I saw King Tchalla’s brother pull his lip down to reveal his glowing blue, vibranium-powered Wakandan tattoo, the body modification evoked for me the palpable rush of ancestral memories and spiritual longing for a Black utopia, an uncolonized land and body that Black American spirituals have envisioned (what scholars call sonic utopias.) 

The lip tattoo is a brilliant bit of worldbuilding. The Wakandan diaspora is, at this point in the movie, a sort of secret society. Having a glowing tattoo shows that the mark is genuine (one presumes it could only be produced with vibranium and therefore not easily forged). Placing it inside the lip means it is ordinarily concealed, and, because of the natural interface of the body, it is easy to reveal. Lastly, it must be a painful spot to tattoo, so shows by way of inference how badass the Wakandan culture is. But it’s more than good worldbuilding to me.

The Black Panther film tattoo electrifies my imagination because it combines both chemical augmentation and amplifies the African identity of being a Wakandan in this story. I think the film could have had even more backstory around the tattoo as a right of passage and development of it in the film. Is it embedded at birth? Or is there a coming of age ceremony associated with it? It would have been cool to see the lip tattoo as a smart tattoo with powers to communicate with other devices and even as a communication device to speak or subvocalize thoughts and desires.

How can we imagine the Wakandan tattoo for the future? I co-designed Afro-Rithms From The Future, an imagination game for creating a dynamic, engaging, and safe space for a community to imagine possible worlds using ordinary objects as inspirations to rethink existing organizational, institutional, and societal relationships. In our launch of the game at the Afrofutures Festival last year at the foresight consultancy Institute For The Future, the winner by declaration was Reina Robinson, a woman who imagined a tattoo that represented one’s history and could be scanned to receive reparation funds to redress and heal the trauma of slavery. 

Doreen Garner is a tattoo artist in Brooklyn who acknowledges that tattooing is “a violent act,” but reframes it in her work as an act of healing. She guides her client-patients through this process. Garner began the Black Panther Tattoo Project in January 2019 on MLK Day. She views the Black Panther tattoo as reclaiming pride as solidarity through a shared image. It represents Black pride and “unapologetic energy that we all need to be expressing right now.” Tattooing is a meditative exercise for her as she makes “a lot of the same marks,” and fills in the same spaces for her Black Panther Tattoo project clientele. When folx are at a concert, party, or panel—and recognize their shared image—they can link up to share their experiences. 

What if this were a smart tattoo where you could hear the tattoo as sound? Right now, the tech outfit Skin Motion can make your tattoo hearable “by pointing the camera on a mobile device at the tattoo,” where you’ll be able to hear the tattoo playback an audio recording. 

Garner, speaking as a Black female tattoo artist, exhorts future artists, “don’t be held back” by thinking that it is a white, male-dominated profession. “White people did not invent tattooing as a practice, because it belongs to us.” They are not the masters. There are many masters of tattooing across cultures.

One example: Yoruba tribal marks. (Apologies for the shitpic.)

The Wakandan tattoo as an ancestral marker reflects a centuries-old tradition in African culture. In Black Panther we see the tattoo as a bold, embedded pillar of Wakandan unity, powerfully inviting us to imagine how tattoos may evolve in the future.

Black Futures Matter

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support Black lives. For this post, support the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM): Sign up for their updates. The organization sends email notifications about special launches, network actions, programs, and partnerships. Being connected to the network is one way to stay unified and support BSAM work. Look out for the launch of the California BSAM regional hub network soon. Listen to the Afrofuturist Podcast with host Ahmed Best as well where Black Futures Matter.  

Upcoming BSAM event

On Aug. 17, join BSAM’s Look For Us in the Whirlwind event as it celebrates the Pan-African legacy of Marcus Garvey.

A Virtual Global Gathering of Afrofuturists and Pan-Afrikanists

This event is a global Pan-African virtual gathering to honour Marcus M. Garvey Jr.’s legacy. It will feature a keynote from Dr. Julius W. Garvey, the youngest son of Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey.

Introducing Afrofuturist Lonny J Avi Brooks

My guest contributor for the Black Panther reviews is Dr. Lonny J. Avi Brooks.

Dr. Brooks is an Associate Professor in the department of communication at California State University, East Bay, where he has piloted the integration of futures thinking into the communication curriculum for the last fifteen years. Emerging in recent years as a leading voice of Afrofuturism 2.0, Brooks contributes prolifically to journals, conferences and anthologies on the subject, as well as serving as executive producer and co-creator, with Ahmed Best, of The Afrofuturist Podcast. e is the lead co-editor for a special issue of the Journal of Futures Studies: “When is Wakanda? Afrofuturism and Dark Speculative Futurity.”

Cover image for the special edition (uncredited)

He is lead organizer in Oakland and advisory board member for the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), co-founded by Reynaldo Anderson, a national and global movement dedicated to celebrating the Black imagination and design. Dr. Brooks serves as Creative Director for BSAM Futures, which aims to promote, publish, and teach forecasting with Afrocentric perspectives in mind, using gaming and facilitation for imaginative, action-oriented thinking.

Cover art for Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness, by John Jennings.

He also volunteers as a core member for outreach at Dynamicland.org, a pioneering non-profit dedicated to creating a more collaborative and dynamic computational medium for the long term. He has a passion for creating games to envision social justice futures including black and queer liberation from Afro-Rithms From The Future to United Queerdom, and Futurescope, he and his co-game designer Eli Kosminsky are committed to articulating emerging new future visions for traditionally underrepresented voices.

He is currently writing Imagining Queer Futures with  Afrofuturism@Futureland: Circulating Afro-Queer futuretypes of Work, Culture and Racial Identity.

“As a forecaster and Afrofuturist who imagines alternative futures from a Black Diaspora perspective, I think about long-term signals that will shape the next 10 to 100 years.”

Dr. Lonny J Avi Brooks

Welcome, Dr. Brooks!

Realtime story visualization

Caveat: This is definitely me reading into things. Or even, inferring something that I’d like to see in the world. But why not?

Black Panther begins with a conversation between a son and father.

  • SON
  • Baba?
  • FATHER
  • Yes, my son?
  • SON
  • Tell me a story
  • FATHER
  • Which one?
  • SON
  • The story of home.

The conversation continues with the father describing the history of Wakanda. On screen, we see a lovely sequence of shapes that illustrate the story. A meteor strikes Africa and the nearby flora and fauna change. Five hands form a pentagram version of the four-handed carry grip to represent the five tribes. The hands shift to become warring tribespeople. Their armor. Their weapons. Their animals.

All these shapes are made from vibranium sand—gunmetal gray colored, sparkling particles, see the screen caps—that move and reform fluidly, with a unifying highlight of glowing blue.

Now, this opening sequence isn’t presented as an interface, or really, as anything in the diegesis at all. We understand it is exposition, for us in the audience. But what if it wasn’t? What if this is showing us a close up of a display that illustrates in real-time what the storyteller is saying? Something just over the shoulder of Baba that the child can watch?

The display would not be prerecorded, which requires the storyteller to match its fixed pace. (Presenters who have tried pecha-kucha style presentations of 20 slides, 20 seconds each will know how awkward this can be.) Instead, this display responds instantly to the storyteller’s tone and pace, allowing them to tailor the story to the responses of the audience: emphasizing the things that seem exciting, or heartwarming, or whatever the storyteller wants.

It’s a given in the MCU that Wakanda has developed the technology to control vibranium down to a very small scale, including levitating it, shaping it, and having it form materials of widely varying properties. Nearly all of the technology we see in the film is made from it. So, the diegetic technology for such a display is there.

It’s not that far a stretch from 2D technology we have now. The game Scribblenauts lets players type in phrases and *poof* that thing appears in the scene with your characters. I doubt it’s, like, dictionary-exhaustive, but the vast majority of things I and my son have typed in have been there.

  • Black panther? Check. (Well, it’s the large cat version, anyway.)
  • Huge pink Cthulu? Check.
  • Teeny tiny singularity? Check!
  • Enraged plaid Beowulf? OK. Not that. But if enough people typed it in, I have a feeling it would eventually show up.

Pipe a speech-to-text engine into something like that, skin it with vibranium sand, and you’re most of the way there.

This unfortunate screen cap makes it look like Cthulu’s about to take a dump in a birdbath.

The interface issues for such a thing probably center around 1. interpretation and 2 control.

1. Natural language understanding of the story

I work on a natural language AI system in my day job at IBM, and disambiguation is one of the major challenges we face: Teaching the systems enough about the world and language to understand what might a user have been meant when they typed something like “deliveries tuesday.” But I work with real-world narrow artificial intelligence, and getting it to understand like a human might understand is a massive undertaking.

The MCU generally, and Wakanda in particular has speculative, human-like Artificial General Intelligences (AGI) like J.A.R.V.I.S., F.R.I.D.A.Y., and Ultron, so all the disambiguation problems we face in the real world are a trivial issue. (Noting that Shuri’s AGI isn’t named in the film.)

AGI can interpret and design and render the story like some magical realtime scene painter in the same way a person would—only much, much faster—and would interpret the language in the same reasonable way. (Plus, I’m pretty sure the display has heard Baba tell this exact same myth before, so its confidence that it is displaying the right thing is even greater.)

2. Controlling the display

The other issue is controlling the display. How does Baba start and stop the rendering? How does it correct something it misunderstood, or change the styling? In the real world we have to work out escape sequences for opt-out systems (like “//” for comments in code) and wake words for opt-in systems (like “Hey, Google” or “Alexa”), but in the MCU we get to rely on the speculative AGI again. Just like a person would know to listen for cues when to start and stop, it can reasonably interpret commands like “pause display,” or “hold here” as we would expect of a person in a tech booth overseeing a theatrical performance.

***

Given the AGI in Wakanda, vibranium sand, and the render-almost-anything engines in the real world, we don’t even have to add anything to the diegesis to make it work, just make a new combination of existing parts.

So while there is zero evidence that this is a diegetic interface, I’m choosing to believe it is one, and hope somebody makes something like it one day. 


Black Lives Matter: A first reading list

The Black Lives Matter movement needs to be much more than education—we need action to dismantle the unjust and racist systems it brings to light—but education can be a first place to start. So for this first post, let’s talk how to educate yourself on the issues at hand. This is especially for white people, since this can be so far out of our lived experience that the claims seem at first implausible.

Here biracial/black filmmaker Maria Breaux has given me persmission to share the books she has shared with me, which are a kind of 101 syllabus. Pick one, any one, and read.

In full disclosure I have not read any of these yet. (I’m a notoriously slow reader.) I’m on this journey, too. I’m starting with The New Jim Crow, because it seems the most painful to read.

New Jim Crow: Michelle Alexander at Dillard Nov. 28 – Antenna.Works

Black Panther (2018)

Release date: 16 Feb 2018

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wakanda is a greatly advanced nation in Africa, which hides from the world both its true nature and the great deposit of valuable vibranium on top of which the capital city is built. The vibranium causes purple flowers to grow in underground caves, the essence of which grants an imbiber superhuman abilities. Wakandans reserve the right to imbibe the essence for their reigning monarch, who is then called the Black Panther.

In 1992 T’Chaka, then king of Wakanda, confronts his brother, Prince N’Jobu, in an Oakland apartment, accusing him of treason and collusion with the murderous vibranium-trafficker Ulysses Klaue. N’Jobu explains his radicalization, “I observed for as long as I could. But their leaders have been assassinated, communities flooded with drugs and weapons. They are overly policed and incarcerated.” He urges T’Chaka to end Wakandan isolationism. Unmoved, the king insists N’Jobu face trial. N’Jobu draws a weapon and aims it at T’Chaka, who in self-defense kills N’Jobu.

In 2018 following the death of T’Chaka, his son Prince T’Challa is to be crowned king. In the ceremony, he is challenged to trial-by-combat by M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe, but T’Challa proves victorious.

Meanwhile, ex-military supervillain Killmonger is collaborating with Klaue. Together they violently liberate a Wakandan treasure made of vibranium from a British colonialist museum. Word gets back to Okoye, who is the badass general of the all-female Wakandan royal military, the Dora Milaje. She recommends they follow the lead to bring Klaue to justice, and the royal court agrees. T’Challa is outfitted with a new Black Panther suit and weapons by his science nerd sister, Shuri.

They travel to a South Korean casino to intercept the sale of the vibranium to CIA agent Everett Ross. Klaue arrives and after a gunfight and car chase, is captured. The arrest is short-lived as, after a day, Klaue is busted out of CIA custody by Killmonger and some goons. Agent Ross is wounded in the process, and taken back to Wakanda for healing.

Killmonger betrays Klaue, killing him and bringing his body to Wakanda. There, he reveals that he is son of N’Jobu, and challenges T’Challa to trial by combat. Killmonger seems to be victorious, throwing T’Challa over a waterfall. T’Challa’s family, his sweetheart Nakia, and Agent Ross flee the capital to the mountain hold of the Jabari. There M’Baku reveals that they have T’Challa in safekeeping. They heal him with the last of the vibranium flowers.

Killmonger reveals his murderous plans of revenge and global conquest to the Wakandan court. As equipment and ships are being loaded for the war, T’Challa appears, challenging Killmonger to finish the trial-by-combat. The fight involves the Border tribe fighting T’Challa out of national duty, the Jabari arriving as cavalry, Agent Ross’ preventing the ships from leaving Wakandan airspace by remote pilot, and Shuri and the Dora Milaje’s mutiny against the usurper. In the end, Black Panther defeats Killmonger, wounding him. Though he could be healed, Killmoger opts to die before a Wakandan sunset instead. He asks that he be buried in the ocean with Africans who jumped from slave ships, because “they knew death was better than bondage.” 

The final scene has T’Challa and Shuri visiting Oakland, where he explains that this will be the site of the first of a series of community outreach centers around the world, ending Wakandan isolationism and hiding, and promising a better, more communal future.

(The stinger has him making a similar announcement to the U.N.)


I ordinarily reserve the introductory post of a series to just a summary of its story. But I chose Black Panther to follow Blade Runner because of the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement following the unjust murder of George Floyd. Protests have died down somewhat since that tragedy, but these issues are far from resolved. Given my pandemic-slowed posting rate, I trust this will help keep these issues visible on this forum for months to come. After all, there is more work to do.

Similar to the anti-fascist series that accompanied the review of Idiocracy, the posts in these reviews will be followed by ways that you can take action against white supremacy and white nationalism, especially in the context of ending police brutality against black lives and the carceral state.

To amplify some awesome voices, I have invited several black writers and futurists to join me in the critique of Black Panther’s interfaces. It is important to note that I am paying them for their efforts, directly or to a charity of their choice. I hope you look forward as much as I do to the Black Panther reviews, and their call to continued activism.

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