The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.

First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smorgasbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.

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But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.

Which are we telling stories about?

Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on scifiinterfaces.com, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see. Continue reading

The Fifth Element Movie Night Pre-Show

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For those who missed the first sci-fi interfaces Movie Night, my friend Reed stepped up and brought a multi-camera setup to the event and edited in post so you could vicariously see what it was like. Watch above, but if you’re more interested in reading, the transcript (edited because the messiness of the spoken word) appears below.

[0:00] INTRO

Hey, good evening. Thanks for showing up. This is actually a wild hair idea that occurred to me in the shower about three and a half weeks ago. My name is Chris Noessel. Every year for the past five years I’ve hosted a private showing in my home, and I thought, "How on Earth and I going to cram all the people I want to invite into my small living room this year?" I tried to work out the logistics and just failed. But fortunately I was able to contact The New Parkway and they said, "We love this sort of thing. And we have a slot open. And we have the film pre-licensed." So for all those reasons a big round of applause to The New Parkway.

[0:52] THE PROJECT

So I’m going to do one plug really quickly, if you’re not familiar. You’re here because you love the movie. I’m going to tell you a little about the project that this evening came about from. About six years ago my coauthor Nathan Shedroff approached me with this cool idea about a book. He noticed that the Motorola Star-Tac phone was surprisingly like the Star Trek communicator, and thought, "Hey, there’s probably a connection here." So over the course of about six years we collected every sci-fi interface that we could in an online database. We tagged that cloud with a database and wrote a book about the results. That book was published in 2012. We just went through our second printing where all of the errata (that many people here may have pointed out) is now corrected. In fact, one of the awards for the trivia contest is a copy of that second [printing].

[01:45] INTERFACE TRIVIA!

So, that’s what that project is about. Since just before the release of the book I’ve been hosting a website called scifiinterfaces.com where I’m slowly releasing that database that we built up and adding a few other things, so it’s actually quite a lot of nerdery all in one place.

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So I want to start up the evening. What we’re going to do is some Fifth Element interface trivia. What I need is 10 volunteers…

[No spoilers from the transcript! Answers to the trivia are in the video. If you want to try the questions yourself, put your answers in the comments before watching it, though all the awards have been given out.]

  1. Why is March 18 Fifth Element Day?
  2. How many cigarettes is Korben allowed each day?
  3. How many points does Korben Dallas have on his license when he gets in the taxi, and for extra credit, how does he know?
  4. What Big Label appears on this interface in the film?
    ZSA_blank
  5. What Big Label appears on this interface in the film?
    fifthe-attackdetection-008_blank
  6. What Big Label appears on this interface in the film?
    NF_blank
  7. What is Leeloo looking at when we see this close up of her eye?
    thefifthelement-eye
  8. What word is repeated three times in the encyclopedia?
  9. This image is associated with which entry in the encyclopedia?
    chimpanzee
  10. This image is associated with which entry in the encyclopedia?
    Napoleon
  11. Fill in the blank "This is a police patrol. This is not an exercise. Can you please spread your legs and _______________."
  12. In the pilot of sci-fi university, the weapon against ultimate evil is an example of what two interface principles?
  13. Can you name any of the four things that the design of the ultimate weapon tests for?
  14. What does it mean that the ultimate evil approaches Earth in exactly the right bearing and at exactly the right time to be stopped by a spinning weapon that cannot be aimed?

[21:06] SUCH INTERFACE

As you may have surmised, the blog covers individual interfaces in movies. I’m going to talk very briefly about one that appears in this film.

One of the reasons why I picked The Fifth Element to watch annually is that it has a number of great interfaces. On the blog there are 53, some of which contain multiple interfaces. It’s chock-full of interface goodness. We’re going to talk about this particular one. Note that this isn’t one of the great ones, this is one of the ones that could use improvement.

[22:14] 4 A DAY

So let’s take a little tour. When Dallas wakes up we see that his apartment sort of "comes on" after his alarm, and one of the things he does is he walks to this machine to get his cigarettes. At the very bottom it shows what his goal is. "TO QUIT IS MY GOAL." (That’s what the shirt says.) At the top is kind of a reminder. It says, "Quit smoking!" With "4 Refill" and "4™ a day." On the right side is this utterly inexplicable LCD display. I think those "1s" are meant to represent the cigarettes, but I’m not certain. And I think in the center is a huge, overblown "there are four left." Why on earth would you need that, when you can glance to the left and look? And the last thing. Is that the temprature of the cigarettes? Is it important that they stay at 27.5 degrees? Really, that makes no sense at all.

And then this is the interface panel that’s he’s got, the buttons that he has to push, and they make more sense. You’ll see Korben only presses the bottom one and it’s kind of useless.

Audience member: It’s a tiny humidor! [This is brilliant, whoever suggested it. But I looked, and it’s too warm!]

To explain why this is good, we have to dip down very briefly into persuasive design. Has anybody here every studied persuasive design?

[23:19] HOT SIGNALS IN THE PATH (poorly explained)

Awesome. Did you study under B.J. Fogg? B.J. talks about a principle called "putting the hot signal on the path." What that means is, when you are trying to provide a trigger for a user to get them to recognize an opportunity to change their own behavior, it needs to be a hot signal. Hot in this sense is one that gets the user’s attention readily. And that’s one of the problems with this interface. There are signals all over it to tell Korben, "Hey, you don’t want to keep smoking." There’s a surgeon general’s warning in the back. There’s that reminder of the goal.

But we also know that humans have a psychological capacity to habituate. You see something a number of times and you’ll stop seeing it anymore. (The other thing is that if the surgeon general’s warning is meant to persuade anyone, it’s behind four glass vials where it absolutely cannot be read. It’s a piece of misery.

I have one story to tell to illustrate the hot signal in the path. Back when I had a small apartment in Houston, we had an air conditioner that was located in the attic. It had a drain pan that actually dripped through a hole in the ceiling directly onto the head of the shower-er. That was freezing. I hated this thing. I thought, "Screw that." I took the hole and moved it to the side. (Oh wow you can’t see me there. I disappeared when that happened.)

This seemed to solve my problem. I had no cold water, I could enjoy my showers. But what ultimately occurred was that the water flooded the drain pan above me. My short term goal of not being frozen to death was actually a bad thing to design for. I should have left it above me because it was a hot signal in the path. (The irony there I hope you’ll appreciate.) The signal was in a place where I would encounter it, in a place the designers know I would be. And that’s what hot signals on the path are.

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When we take that same principle and apply it to the interface, we want to stop the habituation by having this [the goal statement] be an e-ink display that changes every day. And [the surgeon general’s warning] be an LED screen that changes and doesn’t show text. You can’t read text there, through a glass vial. What you want to see back there is an image. And I borrowed one of the images from the Australian cigarette packages that are really gory and really gross and make you think twice. "What the heck am I about to smoke?"

[26:01] WRAP UP [Leaving off the transcript]

Okey doke. That’s all I’m going to leave you with. Because a) there’s beer and b) there’s a cool movie to watch. But if you dig this kind of thinking, there are four places you can get it.

[26:19] MOAR

[26:41] 3 quick announcements:

  • I have Movie Night shirts up at http://26253.spreadshirt.com/ (What’s that red cross-bar for? The site was down at the time.)
  • If you’re interested in trying some future thinking, come to Cooper’s Design the Future class, which I’ll be teaching.
  • Stick around for a post-show preview of the next sci-fi university
  • OK, we’ll see that start in about a minute. You guys enjoy the show.

Fifth Element tees

overview

Major thanks to everyone who came out and joined me for the first ever scifiinterfaces.com movie night at The New Parkway in Oakland! It was a sold-out show, and while there were a few glitches, folks are telling me they had a great time and are looking forward to the next one. There will be a more detailed report once the pre-show video comes out. But in the meantime, this: If you didn’t win the trivia contest or weren’t able to attend, you can still get your hands on the “movie night” t-shirts I debuted there.

Allshirts

Head on over to the spreadshirt shop. It’s ugly (with the default CSS). It doesn’t have a custom URL or anything. It only has 5 products at the moment. But hey, that’s all part of the charm if you’d like to wear your sci-fi interface nerdiness with pride.

http://26253.spreadshirt.com/

P.S. I have no idea why the women’s KEEP CLEAR tee is not appearing in orange since I designed it like the Men’s tee, but I have a request with Spreadshirt now. Hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.

Berlin?

I’m thinking the Bay Area has an appetite for maybe two movie nights a year (let me know if I’m wrong) but I’d also love to try this in Berlin. Do you (or someone you know) know of a cinema in Berlin like the New Parkway that might be interested in my replicating this there?

Fifth Element Day at the New Parkway is on!

9 P.M. Tuesday, 18 MAR 2014, $10, New Parkway Theater

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Thanks to the fast action of connections on social media, we have the requisite numbers to cover the licensing costs to show The Fifth Element on 18 March at the New Parkway!

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You’ll notice on the original page as well as this one that sales are being routed to Brown Paper Tickets. That’s the ticket sales service that New Parkway likes to work with. If you were one of the VIPs who ordered through trycelery.com, look for an email in your inbox over the next few days that confirms your name will be on a VIP Will-Call List at the door, cross-referenced with the email account you provided.

Pre-show

I’m certainly going to introduce myself and the movie to begin. Then I’ll offer up a little trivia game about the interfaces in the film. (Hint: This very blog might be the best place to shop for clues.) The reward for most correct answers will be a copy of Make It So 2nd edition print (with all those pesky errata from the 1st edition fixed.)

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Stretch Goal

If we make it to 100 people, I’ll try to get my hands on one of the replica prop kits for a multipass, and offer that as another prize. Tell your friends and family and get us to 100 people!

If we make it past 100, and get to the max capacity of 140, I’ll come up with some other, even crazier stretch goal.

Scifiinterfaces content

After the trivia, there are a couple of things I could do. But I’ll put it to you, blog readers: What sounds best?

If there’s some other idea you’ve got to make this first scifiinterfaces movie night more fun than a Mangalore concert, drop it in the comments. I’ll check back occasionally on results, and finalize things sometime as we near the event.

Seriously, this is going to be supergreen.

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Fifth Element Day at the New Parkway?

9 P.M. Tuesday, 18 MAR 2014, $10

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Regular readers of the blog will recall that Korben Dallas’ Busy Day starts when he wakes up on 18 March 2263. This is also Director Luc Besson’s birthday, natch. Let’s celebrate this most incredible sci-fi film (with its most incredible interfaces) with a viewing on that most auspicious of days.

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If we get enough people, we can get the rights to view it at the New Parkway Cinema in Oakland and enjoy the film the way it was meant to be enjoyed: With a bunch of other sci-fi nerds, on the big silver screen, with couches, beanbags, food, and a full bar (remember, Luc’s French.)

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How many is enough people?

At $10 tickets, we need at least 50 to secure the rights and have the show. More than that and we get to thank New Parkway for working with me on such short notice. Much more than that and I can have a trivia contest with prizes. And if anyone’s interested, I could either play the Fifth-Element-centric pilot of Sci-Fi University beforehand, or maybe even a live, short-but-nerdy review of one of the other interfaces that appear everywhere in the film. I’ll get feedback on the site once it’s going.

When is the cutoff date?

There’s not a lot of time! We need that 50 as soon as possible so we can secure the cinema and the rights, etc. Ideally we could get that number by end of day today, 19 February. But that’s not a ton of time. So the final cutoff will be this Friday, 21 February 2014 at 4 P.M. Pacific Standard Time

Buy your tickets at Brown Paper Tickets. If we can’t get at least 50 people, you’re not charged. But once we get those 50, the thing’s happening, the sale goes through, and we let Korben Dallas and Leeloo save the universe one more time.

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UPDATE1: My math was off by half. We need 50 for the licensing. I’ve changed the above, and if you’re wondering, it used to say 25.

UPDATE2: We made the numbers! It’s on!