St. God’s: Unscannable Panic

During Joe’s consultation with Dr. Lexus, all the clues he has been stumbling past finally begin to sink in. When Dr. Lexus asks him to pay the bill, and—thinking Joe is mentally challenged—instructs him to put his tattoo up to the OmniBro payment system, he realizes that Joe has no barcode on his wrist.

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The doctor is absolutely terrified of this. He can barely conceive it. “Why come you don’t have a tattoo?” [sic] “You’re not unscannable, are you‽…You’re unscannable!!” In a panic he reaches out to his treatment panel and smashes the lower-left hand icon, shouting, “UNSCANNABLE!!” This causes a klaxon to sound and red beacon light to blink. Joe realizes he can’t stay and flees.

The panel

Dr. Lexus has a 3×4 mini-panel similar to Biggiez’ intake interface. It gets only a blurry half a second of screen time, but through the annoying power of screengrab, I can see that they’re a subset of the graphics from the intake interface.

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Artists’ janky interpretation

Too bad. It was an opportunity for more hilarity, perhaps something similar to Dr. Lexus’ moronic ramblings. Think buttons for Kick Ass, Sound like a Dick, and Fucked Up. (Serious props to Jason Long for pulling these lines off so hilariously.) But let’s instead talk about mashing buttons.

Avoiding accidental activation

We want to ensure that a doctor only presses this high-cost button deliberately, but it still has to be easy to press. The classic CTRL-ALT-DELETE key chord is an example of deliberateness. It was designed to be very difficult to press accidentally. A gas station shut-off emergency shut off is an example of an emergency button that is easy to find and press.

Dr. Lexus’ panic button is the opposite of this: A high-cost button that looks like and sits adjacent to all these other presumably low-cost buttons, and even sits in one of the easiest-to-hit areas, requiring some of the least precision. The risk of accidental activation seems very high. Don’t do this.

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On the other hand, it’s possible that the keyboard is aware of Dr. Lexus’ emotional state, either from lots of context cues, or the strength of his mashing, or the fact that he’s touching four buttons at once.

Affective input

Smashing is its own kind of input—it’s different than the deliberate key presses of ordinary use. It means that either the user is in some intense emotional state (angry, panicked, or…a joyful toddler, maybe?) or not actually trying to provide input, just manipulating the interface (say, picking up the keyboard to move it.) These are events which designers can consider and design for. A real world example is the mobile version of Google Maps, shake it and it presumes that you are angry and asks you for feedback.

So it’s possible—if you want to give interfaces in the Idiocracy more credit than is justifiable given the idiocracy—that the panel is detecting the fast, hard, mashing of multiple keys, and registering that as a distress call. Long-time readers may recall Zorg mashing his desktop keypad in a panic as he chokes on a cherry pit in The Fifth Element. Perhaps this interface can sit alongside it as a possible opposite.

Triple your resistance to the Idiocracy (today)

Straight from DSCC: The last FEC deadline before Election Day is in just two days. That means the final decisions are being made right now about where to allocate resources for the last weeks before November’s elections.

It also means that the final ad buys of the midterm elections are being made—and we need to make sure sane candidates have the resources they need to get their message out. Enter the DSCC.

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They have a $300,000 goal, and only have until Wednesday at midnight to hit it. If you make a donation, it will be TRIPLE-MATCHED to give candidates what they need to flip the Senate and put some necessary counterbalance to the insanity coming from the executive branch.

St. God’s: Healthmaster Inferno

After Joe goes through triage, he is directed to the “diagnosis area to the right.” He waits in a short queue, and then enters the diagnosis bay.

The attendant wears a SMARTSPEEK that says, “Your illness is very important to us. Welcome to the Healthmaster Inferno.”

The attendant, DR. JAGGER, holds three small metal probes, and hands each one to him in turn saying, “Uh, this one goes in your mouth. This one goes in your ear. And this one goes up your butt.” (Dark side observation about the St. God’s: Apparently what it takes to become a doctor in Idiocracy is an ability to actually speak to patients and not just let the SMARTSPEEK do all the talking.)

Joe puts one in his mouth and is getting ready to insert the rest, when a quiet beeping causes the attendant to pause and correct himself. “Shit. Hang on a second.” He takes the mouth one back and hands him another one. “This one…No.” He gathers them together, and unable to tell them apart, he shuffles them trying to figure it out, saying “This one. This one goes in your mouth.” Joe reluctantly puts the offered probe into his mouth and continues.

The diagnosis is instant (and almost certainly UNKNOWN). SMARTSPEEK says, “Thank you for waiting. Dr. Lexus will be with you shortly.”

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The probes

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St. God’s: Intake

In their forecasting workshops, the Institute for the Future trains practitioners to sensitize themselves to “signals,” something that may seem banal but on reflection foretells great change or deep meaning. That story about the arctic penguins who accepted a furry remote controlled camera as a chick is one of mine. Still wrestling with its implications. This interface is another.

After Joe walks past the FloorMaster and Insurance Slot Machines, he finally makes it up to the triage desk. It’s labeled CHECK-IN, and the sign devotes a large portion of its space to advertising. He speaks to the employee there, named Biggiez, who blankly listens to him talk about how he’s feeling. As he talks, she looks down at a wide panel of buttons, floating her pointing finger above the unlabeled icons that kind-of describe common ailments.

When Joe says, “I don’t even know where I am,” she finally pushes an icon featuring a stick figure, shrugging, with two question marks floating in the space beside its sad face. In response, it lights up, we hear a ding, and a SMARTSPEEK device on Biggiez’ blouse says, “Please proceed to the diagnostic area on the right…and have a healthy day.” Joe moves on to the diagnosis bay, which I’ll discuss in the next post.

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A shout-out to these icons

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St. God’s: Insurance Slot Machine

The other depressing thing besides the FloorMaster that Joe sees as he walks through St. God’s lobby is the insurance slot machines.

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He sees a man with a blank expression and a bleeding head wound above his left eye, who stands a bank of slot machines. The backglass of each has diagonal logos advertising BLAKDIX capsules (n.b. the wallpaper advertises BONERAX), telling players they can play while they wait, and that they can WIN FREE MEDICAL CARE. The reel strips don’t show bells or fruit, but rather, pills. The blood from the head wound shines in the lights.

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This is the future that the GoP and insurance companies want.

Games and games of chance don’t obey standard usability principles. The point of them is that you don’t know if you’ll get what you want. So a regular analysis won’t do.

Slot machines are fairly standardized, and the only things these particular ones seem to be missing is a paytable. If you don’t know your slot machine lingo, that’s an information table, presented on the backglass, explaining what combinations of symbols pay out and how much. Three z-packs? Congratulations! You don’t have to die of sepsis today! No player should put money in a slot machine without knowing what the payout might be. And these machines don’t have them. In the real world, this wouldn’t fly. But in Idiocracy, it’s perfect. Let me explain. Of course it’s going to get political fast.

The shock of this half-a-second beat comes from the immediate recognition that the man is bleeding, and the half-a-second later realization that he’s standing at a slot machine to try and resolve his problem. Why isn’t he getting care? Why does he accept this? Why would anyone? This is stupid, you think. And you’re right. It’s stupid and inhumane that the richest country in the world would not use some of its wealth to take care of its citizens. Yet 44 million Americans have no insurance and another 38 million have inadequate insurance. That means nearly one-third of Americans are just hoping that they don’t get sick. If they do, they risk either getting that help and going bankrupt, or living in pain, getting worse…maybe dying. Also, you know, their kids.

No one wants to get sick. So in our system, we have the uninsured gambling with their lives.

This isn’t just how it has to be. Thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the only exception. There’s an idiotic idea that America somehow gets great medical care in exchange for this, but that’s just a self-serving lie. The Commonwealth Fund did an extensive comparison of the healthcare in 11 developed nations, and the U.S. fared the worst. And individually, we pay about twice as much per capita than other developed nations. So our system is the most expensive, AND the worst, AND abandons ⅓ of our citizens to rolls of the healthcare dice. How can it be this way? Who is in favor of this? Healthcare for profit, of course, and that’s a GoP speciality.

We know that Democrats lead the way on healthcare reform. The Affordable Care Act was remarkable for how far it got with Obama facing a historically obstructionist Republican Congress, and the GoP has been trying to undo it since. Insurance companies know that the GoP is their friend. In 2012, the insurance industry donated nearly $55 million to parties and candidates and 68% went to Republicans. They know.

Which brings up back to the slot machines. People who stand at a machine that looks like it might give them healthcare (gosh, it looks like a slot machine. It must pay eventually, right?), without any indication that it actually will, are idiots, and any system that allows this is an Idiocracy.

We have one tool to combat making this image any more of a reality, and it’s a vote.

Fighting Idiocracy

Voter suppression tactics (undertaken in the bad-faith argument against voter fraud) include closing polling places near traditionally Democrat strongholds. What can you do?

Drive them yourself

If you have seats to spare make a broadcast on social media channels. Or offer to people who may face transportation challenges.

Join Find a volunteer driver group

Carpool the Vote seems dedicated to this cause, but is currently not accepting any more sign ups, but it would be worth checking in on the site to see if they open up again. I couldn’t find an alternate system, but if anyone knows it, speak up in the comments.

Share information about discounted and free ride-shares

Lyft is offering 50% off rides to and from polling locations on election day. Unfortunately I can’t find a way to donate to Lyft so they can make it free, so I will note that Uber—though a company with a much worse track record as a corporate citizen than Lyft—has promised free rides. (People have to have the latest version of the app, so also encourage them to update it.) Get that word out to people who can use it. Post on neighborhood Facebook groups, Slack, and NextDoor channels.

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Get people to the polls so they exercise their right to vote.

The FloorMaster

As Joe wanders through the (incredibly depressing) lobby of St. God’s Memorial Hospital, it is at once familiar but wrong. One of these wrong things is a floor cleaning robot labeled The FloorMaster. It loudly announces “YOUR FLOOR IS NOW CLEAN!” while bumping over and over into a toe kick under a cabinet. (It also displays this same phrase on a display panel.) The floor immediately below its path is, in fact, spotless, but the surrounding floor is so filthy it is opaque with dirt, as well as littered with syringes and trash lined with unsettling stains.

There are few bananas for scale, but I’m guessing it’s half meter square. It has a yellow top with greed sides and highlights. It has bumpers and some

Narratively awesome

The wonderful thing about this device is it quickly tells us a couple of things at once. First, the FloorMaster is a technology that is, itself, kind of stupid. Today’s Roombas “know” to turn a bit when they bump into a wall. It’s one of the basic ways they avoid this very scenario. So this illustrates that the technology in this world is, itself, kind of stupid. (How society managed to make it this far without imploding or hell, exploding, is a mystery.)

It also shows that the people around the machines are failing to notice and do anything about the robot. They are either too dull to notice or this is just so common that it’s not worth doing anything about.

It also shows how stupid capitalism has become (it’s a running theme of St. God’s and the rest of the movie). It calls itself the floor master, but in no way has it mastered your floors. In no way are your floors clean, despite what the device itself is telling and blinking at you. And CamelCase brand names are so 1990s, much less 2505.

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Realistically stupid

So, I wrote this whole book about agents, i.e. technologies that persistently respond to triggers with behaviors that serve people. It’s called Designing Agentive Technologies: AI That Works for People. One of my recurring examples in that book and when I speak publicly about that content is the Roomba, so I have a bookload of opinions on how this thing should be designed. I don’t want to simply copy+paste that book here. But know that Chapter 9 is all about handoff and takeback between an agent and a user, and ideally this machine would be smart enough to detect when it is stuck and reach out to the user to help.

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I would be remiss not to note that, as with the The Fifth Element floor sweeping robots, safety of people around the underfoot robot is important. This is especially true in a hospital setting, where people may be in a fragile state and not as alert as they would ordinarily be. So unless this was programmed to run only when there was no one around, it seems like a stupid thing to have in a hospital. OK, chalk another point up to its narrative virtues.

Fighting US Idiocracy

Speaking of bots, there is a brilliant bot that you can sign up for to help us resist American idiocracy. It’s the resistbot, and you can find it on Facebook messenger, twitter, and telegram. It provides easy ways to find out who represents you in Congress, and deliver messages to them in under 2 minutes. It’s not as influential as an in-person visit or call, but as part of your arsenal, it helps with reminders for action. Join!

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Sleeping pods

Use

Joe and Rita climb into the pods and situate themselves comfortably. Officer Collins and his assistant approach and insert some necessary intravenous chemicals. We see two canisters, one empty (for waste?) and one filled with the IV fluid. To each side of the subject’s head is a small raised panel with two lights (amber and ruby) and a blue toggle switch. None of these are labeled. The subjects fall into hibernation and the lids close.


Collins and his assistant remove a cable labeled “MASTER” from the interface and close a panel which seals the inputs and outputs. They then close a large steel door, stenciled “TOP SECRET,” to the hibernation chamber.

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The external interface panel includes:

  • A red LED display
  • 3 red safety cover toggle switches labeled “SET 1” “SET 2” and “SET 3.”
  • A 5×4 keypad
    • 0-9 numbers
    • Letters A–F
    • Four unlabeled white buttons

500 years later, after the top secret lab is destroyed, the pods become part of the mountains of garbage that just pile up. Sliding down an avalanche of the stuff, the pods wind up in a downtown area. Joe’s crashes through Frito’s window. At this moment the pod decides enough is enough and it wakes him. Clamps around the edge unlock. The panel cover has fallen off somewhere, and the LED display blinks the text, “unfreezing.” Joe drowsily pushes the lids open and gets out.

Its purpose in the narrative

This is a “segue” interface, mostly useful in explaining how Joe and Rita are transported safely 500 years in the future. At its base, all it needs to convey is:

  • Scienciness (lights and interfaces, check)
  • See them pass into sleep (check)
  • See why how they are kept safe (rugged construction details, clamped lid, check)
  • See the machine wake them up (check)

Is it ideal?

The ergonomics are nice. A comfortable enough coffin to sleep in. And it seems…uh…well engineered, seeing as how it winds up lasting 500 times its intended use and takes some pretty massive abuse as it slides down the mountains of garbage and through Frito’s window into his apartment. But that’s where the goodness ends. It looks solid enough to last a long long time. But there are questions.

From Collins’ point of view:

  • Why was it engineered to last 500 years, but you know, fail to have any of its interior lights or toggle switches labeled? Or have something more informative on the toggles than “SET 1”?
  • How on earth did they monitor the health of the participants over time? (Compare Prometheus’ hibernation screens.) Did they just expect it to work perfectly? Not a lot of comfort to the subjects. Did they monitor it remotely? Why didn’t that monitoring screen arouse the suspicions of the foreclosers?
  • How are subjects roused? If the procedure is something that Collins just knows, what if something happens to him? That information should be somewhere on the pod with very clear instructions.
  • How does it gracefully degrade as it runs out of resources (power, water, nutrition, air, water storage or disposal) to keep it’s occupants alive? What if the appointed person doesn’t answer the initial cry for help?

From the hibernators’ point of view:

  • How do the participants indicate their consent to go into hibernation? Can this be used as an involuntary prison?
  • How do they indicate consent to be awakened? (Not an easy problem, but Passengers illustrates why it’s necessary.)
  • What if they wake early? How do they get out or let anyone know to release them?
  • Why does the subject have to push the lid if they’re going to be weak and woozy when they waken? Can’t it be automatic, like the hibernation lids in Aliens?
  • How does the sleeper know it’s safe to get out? Certainly Joe and Rita expected to wake up in the military laboratory. But while we’re putting in the effort to engineer it to last 500 years, maybe we could account for the possibility that it’s somewhere else.
  • Can’t you put me at ease in the disorientating hypnopompic phase? Maybe some soothing graphic on the interior lid? A big red label reading, “DON’T PANIC” with an explanation?
  • Can you provide some information to help orient me, like where I am and when I am? Why does Joe have to infer the date from a magazine cover?

From a person-in-the-future point of view

  • How do the people nearby know that it contains living humans? That might be important for safekeeping, or even to take care in case the hibernators are carrying some disease to which the population has lost resistance.
  • How do we know if they’ve got some medical conditions that will need specialized care? What food they eat? Whether they are dangerous?
  • Can we get a little warning so we can prepare for all this stuff?

Is the interface believable?

Oh yes. Prototypes tend to be minimum viable thing, and usability lags far behind basic utility. Plus, this is military, known to be tough people expecting their people to be tough people without the need for civilian niceties. Plus, Collins didn’t seem too big on “details.” So very believable.

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Note that this doesn’t equate to the thing itself being believable. I mean, it was an experiment meant to last only a year. How did it have the life support resources—including power—to run for 500 times the intended duration? What brown fluid has the 273,750,000 calories needed to sustain Luke Wilson’s physique for 500 years? (Maya Rudoph lucks out needing “only” 219,000,000.) How did it keep them alive and prevent long-term bedridden problems, like pressure sores, pneumonia, constipation, contractures, etc. etc.?
See? Comedy is hard to review.

Fight US Idiocracy: Donate to close races

Reminder: Every post in this series includes some U.S.-focused calls to action for readers to help reverse the current free fall into our own Idiocracy. In the last post I provided information about how to register to vote in your state. DO THAT.
If you accidentally missed the deadline (and triple check because many states have some way to register right up to and including election day, which is 06 NOV this year), there are still things you can do. Sadly, one of the most powerful things feels crass: Donate money to close campaigns. Much of this money is spent reaching out to undecided voters via media channels, and that means the more money the more reach.

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There are currently 68 highly competitive seats—those considered a toss up between the two parties or leaning slightly toward one. You can look at the close campaigns and donate directly, or you can donate to Act Blue, and let that organization make the call. That’s what I did. Just now. Please join me.ActBlue_logo.png

Idiocracy: Overview

While reviewing fascism in sci-fi, I was reminded of how much I love Mike Judge’s under-appreciated film Idiocracy. It’s hilarious, smart, and, admittedly, mean sci-fi. Since American politics are heading to some unholy Deep Dream merger of this film and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m refining my broad dictum against sci-fi comedy and diving in.

Release Date: 25 January 2007 (USA)

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Overview

Private Joe Bauers and jaded sex worker Rita are selected by a military program—for their being very, very average—to be frozen in capsules for a year.

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