Staff of the Living Tribunal

This staff appears to be made of wood and is approximately a meter long when in its normal form. When activated by Mordo it has several powers. With a strong pull on both ends, the staff expands into a jointed energy nunchaku. It can also extend to an even greater length like a bullwhip. When it impacts a solid object such as a floor, it seems to release a crack of loud energy. Too bad we only ever see it in demo mode.

How might this work as technology?

The staff is composed of concentric rings within rings of material similar to a collapsing travel cup. This allows the device to expand and contract in length. The handle would likely contain the artificial intelligence and a power source that activates when Mordo gives it a gestural command, or if we’re thinking far future, a mental one. There might also be an additional control for energy discharge.

In the movie, sadly, Mordo does not use the Staff to its best effect, especially when Kaecilius returns to the New York sanctum. Mordo could easily disrupt the spell being cast by the disciples using the staff like a whip, but instead he leaps off the balcony to physically attack them. Dude, you’re the franchise’s next Big Bad? But let’s put down the character’s missteps to look at the interface.

Mode switching and inline meta-signals

Any time you design a thing with modes, you have to design the state changes between those modes. Let’s look at how Mordo moves between staff, nunchaku, and whip in this short demonstration scene.

To go from staff to nunchaku, Mordo pulls it apart. It’s now in a dangerous state, so is there any authentication or safety switch here? It could be there, but all passive via contact sensors, which would be the best so it could be activated in a hurry. The film doesn’t give us any clue, really, so that’s an open question.

How does it know to go from nunchaku to whip? It sure would be crappy to bet on a disabling thwack against your opponent only to find it lazily draping over a shoulder instead. (Pere Perez might have advanced ideas, given his ideas on light saber tactics.) Again, this state change could be passive, detecting in real time the subtle gestural differences in a distal snap, which a bullwhip would need, and lateral force, which sets the nunchaku spinning, and adjust between the two accordingly. Gestural and predictive technologies are not cinemagenic, so let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and say that’s what’s happening.

A last mode is After Mordo cracks it against the ground, it retracts back to Staff form. This is the hardest one to buy. Certainly it’s a most dramatic ending for Mordo’s demonstration. But does it snap back automatically after it strikes a surface? Automation is not always the answer. Deliberate control would mean Mordo doesn’t have to waste time undoing unwanted automatic actions.

Critical systems must be extremely confident in their interpretations before automation is the right choice.

It might be that this particular gesture is a retraction signal, but how the Staff distinguishes this from a mid-combat strike is tricky. It would have to have sophisticated situational awareness to know the difference, and it doesn’t display this. Better backworlding would point at some subtle gestural signal from Mordo. A double-tightening of his grip, maybe. Or even a double-slight-release of his grip, since that’s something he’s quite unlikely to do in combat.

This is a broad pattern for designers to remember. Inline control signals should be simple-to-provide, but unlikely to occur in literal use. Imagine if the Winter Soldier’s Trigger Phrase wasn’t “Longing, rusted, 17, daybreak, furnace, 9, benign, homecoming, 1, freight car” but instead was the word “the.” He’d be berserking every few seconds. Unworkable. So, if you were designing the Staff’s retraction command gesture, you’d have to pick something he could remember and perform easily, and that would be difficult to accidentally provide.

If Mordo has the staff in the next film, I hope the control modes are clearer and of course well-designed.

Named relics in Doctor Strange

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

You’ve no doubt opened up this review of Doctor Strange thinking “What sci-fi interfaces are in this movie? I don’t recall any.” And you’re right. There aren’t any. (Maybe the car, the hospital, but they’re not very sci-fi.) We’re going to take Clarke’s quote above and apply the same types of rigorous assessment to the magical interfaces and devices in the movie that we would for any sci-fi blockbuster.

Dr. Strange opens up a new chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing the concept of magic on Earth, that is both discoverable and learnable by humans. And here we thought it was just a something wielded by Loki and other Asgardians.

In Doctor Strange, Mordo informs Strange that magical relics exist and can be used by sorcerers. He explains that these relics have more power than people could possibly manage, and that many relics “choose their owner.” This is reminiscent of the wands in the Harry Potter books. Magical coincidence?


Subsequently in the movie we are introduced to a few named relics, such as…

  • The Eye of Agamoto
  • The Staff of the Living Tribunal
  • The Vaulting Boots of Valtor
  • The Cloak of Levitation
  • The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak

…(this last one, while not named specifically in the movie, is named in supporting materials). There are definitely other relics that the sorcerers arm themselves with. For example, in the Hong Kong scene Wong wields the Wand of Watoomb but it is not mentioned by name and he never uses it. Since we don’t see these relics in use we won’t review them.


Choosing an Owner

The implications of what Mordo tells Strange is profound because it means magical relics possess some kind of intelligence. That’s a weighty word, so In order to back this up, we need a common definition in place. Let’s ask Merriam-Webster.


a (1) :  the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations :  reason; also :  the skilled use of reason (2) :  the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)

That gives us the foundation that we need. In order to choose their owner, these relics require a theory of mind, an ability to detect and perceive the individuals they meet, and they must possess a reasoning mechanism to decide that an individual is worthy or useful to them. That seems to satisfy both senses of that definition. For our purposes we’re going to think of this in terms of an artificial intelligence and review these relics as if they were a form of advanced technology. Thanks, Mr. Clarke.

We should take care, though. There are some narrative trappings for magic that can trip us up. Magic, for instance, doesn’t typically run out in these relics, but if they were technological, we would have to deal with issues of power, batteries or recharging. So for all their instructive power, we would have to deal with even greater complexity if they were real technology.

The AIs/Intelligences appear to vary in capabilities from narrow to general and are focused on their own specific purposes and “hardware.” In use, they primarily respond to the intentions and actions of the user. None of the objects seem to be able to speak directly, although the Cloak provides rudimentary directional guidance and responds to speech and emotions, so the connection varies from communication via touch to some form of remote telepathy.


Distance constraints

The initial awareness and selection by an relic for a sorcerer seems limited in range to a few meters. It’s almost like they need to meet their humans socially to determine if they are a match. But once  an relic chooses a sorcerer, their interactions can occur more remotely. The Cloak, as we’ll see in that write-up, flies to save Strange from a fall and it fights for him in the Sanctum while he seeks medical attention across town at the hospital.

What’s the platform?

One question the diligent backworlder might seek to answer is how all of these unique relics—created as they were across different millennia, and realities and by different sources/sorcerers/beings—wound up with similar intelligence and imprinting features. The movie itself doesn’t provide an answer, so we’ll leave it to speculation, but it does imply some sort of shared provenance/source material/code base/relic-maker convention.

Ok. So we’re set with some understanding of how these things work and what they have in common. Next let’s dig into the big billowy one that should have gotten supporting actor credit in the film.