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

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.

Spinners (flying cars)

So the first Fritzes are now a thing. Before I went off on that awesome tangent, where were we? Oh that’s right. I was reviewing Blade Runner as part of a series on AI in sci-fi. I was just about to get to Spinners. Now vehicles are complicated things as they are, much less when they are navigating proper 3D space. Additionally, the police force is, ostensibly, a public service, which complicates things even further. So this will get lengthy. Still, I think I can get this down to eight or so subtopics.

In the distant future of 2019, flying cars, called “spinners,” are a reality. They’re largely for the wealthy and powerful (including law enforcement). The main protagonist, Deckard, is only ever a passenger in a few over the course of the film. His partner Gaff flies one, though, so we have enough usage to review.

Opening the skies to automobile-like traffic poses challenges, especially when those skies are as full of lightning bolts, ever-present massive flares, distracting building-sized video advertisements, and of course, other spinners.

Piloting controls

To pilot the spinner, Gaff keeps his hands on each handle of a split yoke. Within easy reach of his fingers are a few unlabeled buttons and small lights. Once we see him reach with his right thumb to press one of the buttons, but we don’t see any result, so it’s not clear what these buttons do. It’s nice that they don’t require him to take his hands off the controls. (This might seem like a prescient concept, but WP tells me the first non-horn wheel-mounted controls date back as far back as 1966.)

It is contextualizing to note the mode of agency here. That is, the controls are manual, with no AI offering assistance or acting as an agent. (The AI is in the passenger’s seat, lol fight me.) It appears to be up to Gaff to observe conditions, monitor displays, perform wayfinding, and keep the spinner on track.

Note that we never see what his feet are doing and never see him doing other things with his hands other than putting on a headset before lift-off. There are lots of other controls to the pilot’s left and in the console between seats, but we never see them in use. So, you know, approach with caution. There are a lot of unknowns here.

The Traditional Chinese characters on the window read “No entry,” for citizens outside the spinner, passing by when it is on the ground. (Hat tips for the translation to Mischa Park-Doob and Frank Chung.)

The spinner is more like a VTOL aircraft or helicopter than a spaceship. That is, it is constantly in the presence of planetary gravity and must overcome the constant resistance of air. So the standards I established in the piloting controls post are of only limited use to us here.

So let’s look at how helicopter controls work. The FAA Helicopter Flying Handbook tells us that a pilot has controls for…

  1. The vertical velocity, up or down. (Controlled by the angle of the control stick called the collective. The collective is to the left of the pilot’s hip when they are seated.)
  2. The thrust. (Controlled by the twistgrip on the collective.)
  3. Movement forward, rearward, left, and right. (Controlled with the stick in front of the pilot, called the cyclic.)
  4. Yaw of the vehicle. (Controlled with the pair of antitorque pedals at the pilot’s feet.)

Since we don’t see Gaff when the spinner is moving up and down, let’s presume that the thing he’s gripping is like a Y-shaped cyclic, with lots of little additional controls around the handles. Then, if we presume he has a collective somewhere out of sight to his left and antitorque pedals at his feet, this interface meets modern helicopter standards for control. From the outside, those appear to be well mapped (collective up = helicopter up, cyclic right = helicopter right). Twist for thrust is a little weird, but it’s a standard and certainly learnable, as I recall from my motorcycling days. So let’s say it’s complete and convincing. Is it the best it could be? I’m not enough of an aeronautical engineer (read: not at all) to imagine better options, so let’s move along. I might have more to say if it was agentive.

Dashboard

There are two large screens in the dashboard. The one directly in front of Gaff shows a stylized depiction of the 3D surfaces around him as cyan highlights on a navy blue background. Approaching red shapes describe a pill-shaped tunnel-in-the-sky display. These have been tested since 1981 and found to provide higher tracking performance to ideal paths in manual flight, lower cognitive workload, and enhanced situational awareness. (https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/3.56119) So, this is believable and well done. I’m not sure that Gaff could readily use the 3D background to effectively understand the 3D terrain, but it is tertiary, after the real world and the tunnel display.

I have to say that it’s a frustrating anti-trope to run into again, but it must be said: If the spinner knows where the ship should be, and general artificial intelligence exists in this diegesis, why exactly are humans doing the piloting? Shouldn’t the spinner fly itself? But back to the interfaces…

Above the tunnel-in-the-sky display is a cyan 7-segment LED scroll display. In the gif above it displays “MAXIMUM SPEED” and later it provides some wayfinding text. I’m not sure how many different types of information it is meant to cycle through, but it sure would be a pain to wait for vital information to appear, and distracting to have to control it to get to the one you wanted.

There is also a vertical screen in the middle of the console listing cyan labels ALT, VEL, and PTCH. These match to altitude, velocity, and pitch variables, reinforcing the helicopter model. The yellow numbers below these labels change in the scene very slowly, and—remarkably for a four-second interface from 1982—do not appear to change randomly. That’s awesome.

But then, there’s a paragraph of cyan text in the middle of the screen that appears over the course of the scene, letter by letter. This animation calls unnecessary attention to itself. There are also smaller, thin screens in the pilot’s door that also continually scroll that same teeny tiny cyan text. I’m not sure WTF all this text is supposed to be, since it would be horribly distracting to a pilot. There are also a few rows of white LEDs with cylon-eye displays traveling back and forth. They are distracting, but at least they’re regular, and might be habituate-able and act as some sort of ambient display. Anyway, if we were building this thing for real, we’d want to eliminate these.

Lastly, at the bottom of the center screen are some unlabeled bar charts depicting some variables that appear to be wiggling randomly. So, like, only the top fifth of this screen can be lauded. The rest is fuigetry. *sigh* It’s hard to escape.

Wayfinding

To help navigate the 3D space, pilots have a number of tools. First, there are windows where you expect windows to be in a car, and there are also glass panels under their feet. The movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but it’s clear in the scene where the spinner lifts off from the street level. These transparent panes surround pilots and passengers and allow them to track visual cues for landmarks and to identify collision threats.

It’s reflecting some neon on the street below.

The tunnel-in-the-sky display above is the most obvious wayfinding tool. Somehow Gaff has entered a destination, and the tunnel guides him where it needs to go. Since this entails a safe path through the air, it’s the most important display. Other bits of information (like the ALT, VEL, and PTCH in the center screen) should be oriented around it. This would make them glanceable, allowing Gaff glance to check them and quickly return his eyes to the windshield. In fact, we have to admit that a heads up display would allow Gaff to keep his attention where it needs to be rather than splitting it between the real world and these dashboard displays. Modern vehicle drivers are used to this split attention, and can manage it well enough. But I suspect that a HUD would be better.

It’s also at this point that you begin to wonder if these are the scout ships we see in Close Encounters.

There is also that crawling LED display above the tunnel-in-the-sky screen. In one scene it shows “SECTOR FOUR (4)…QUAD-” (we don’t get to see the end of this phrase) but it implies that one of the bits of information this scroll provides is a reminder of the name of the neighborhood you’re currently in. That really only helps if you’re way off course, and seems too low a fidelity for actual wayfinding assistance, but presuming the tunnel-in-the-sky is helping provide the rest of the wayfinding, this information is of secondary importance.

A special note about takeoff: ENVIRON CTR

The display sequence infamous for appearing in both Alien and Blade Runner happens as Gaff lifts off in a spinner early in the film. White all-cap letters label this blue screen “ENVIRON CTR,” above a grid of square characters. Then two 8-digit sequences “drop” down the center of the square grid: 92886599 | 95654085. Once they drop 3 rows, the background turns red, the grid disappears to be replaced by a big blinking label PURGE. Characters at the bottom read “24556 DR 5”, and don’t change.

After the spinner lifts off the display shows a complex diagram of a circle-within-a-circle, illustrating the increasing elevation from the ground below. The delightful worldbuilding thing about the sequence is that it is inscrutable, and legible only by a trained driver, yet gets full focus on screen. There’s not really enough information about the speculative engineering or functional constraints of the spinner to say why these screens would be necessary or useful. I have a suspicion that a live camera view would be more useful than the circle-within-a-circle view, but gosh, it sure is cool. Here’s the shot from Alien, by the way, for easy comparison.

Since people seem to be all over this one now, let me also interject that Alien is also connected to Firefly, since Mal’s anti-aircraft HUD in the pilot had a Weyland-Yutani logo. Chew on that trivia, Internet.

Intercar communication

Of special note is a scene just before his call to Sebastian’s apartment. Deckard is sitting in his parked vehicle in a call with Bryant. A police spinner glides by and we hear an announcement over his loudspeaker, directed to Deckard’s vehicle saying, “This sector’s closed to ground traffic. What are you doing here?” From inside his vehicle, Deckard looks towards his video phone in the console (we never see if there is video, but he’s looking in that direction rather than out the window) and without touching a thing, responds defensively, “I’m working. What are you doing?” The policeman’s reply comes through the videophone’s speakers, “Arresting you, that’s what I’m doing.”

Note that Deckard did not have to answer the call or even put Bryant on hold. We don’t know what the police officer did on their end, but this interaction implies that the police can make an instant, intrusive audio connection with vehicles it finds suspicious. It’s so seamless it will slip by you if you don’t know to look for it, but it paints quite a picture of intercar communication. Can you imagine if our cars automatically shared an audio space with the cars around it?

External interfaces

Another aspect of the car is that it is an interface not just for the people using the car, but for the citizens observing or near the spinner as it goes about its business. There are a number of features that helps it act as an interface to the public. 

Police exist as a social service, and the 995 repeated around the outside helps remind citizens of the number they can call in case of an emergency. 

Modern patrol cars have beacons and sirens to tell other drivers to get out of the way when they are on urgent business. Police spinners are gravid with beacons, having 12 of them visible from the front alone. (See below.) As the spinner is taking off, yellow and blue beacons circle as a warning. This would be of no help to a blind person nearby, but the vehicle does make some incidental noise that serves as an audible warning.

The rich light strip makes sense because it has such a greater range of movement than ground-based cars, and needs more attention grabbing power. Another nice touch is that, since the spinner can be above people, there are also beacons on the chassis.

Upshot: Spinners do well

So, all in all, the spinner fares quite well on close inspection. It builds on known models of piloting, shows mostly-relevant data, uses known best practices for assistance, and has a lot of well-considered surface features for citizens.

Now if only I could figure out why they’re called spinners.

Routing Board

When the two AIs Colossus and Guardian are disconnected from communicating with each other, they try and ignore the spirit of the human intervention and reconnect on their own. We see the humans monitoring Colossus’ progress in this task on big board in the U.S. situation room. It shows a translucent projection map of the globe with white dots representing data centers and red icons representing missiles. Beneath it, glowing arced lines illustrate the connection routes Colossus is currently testing. When it finds that a current segment is ineffective, that line goes dark, and another segment extending from the same node illuminates.

For a smaller file size, the animated gif has been stilled between state changes, but the timing is as close as possible to what is seen in the film.

Forbin explains to the President, “It’s trying to find an alternate route.”

A first in sci-fi: Routing display 🏆

First, props to Colossus: The Forbin Project for being the first show in the survey to display something like a routing board, that is, a network of nodes through which connections are visible, variable, and important to stakeholders.

Paul Baran and Donald Davies had published their notion of a network that could, in real-time, route information dynamically around partial destruction of the network in the early 1960s, and this packet switching had been established as part of ARPAnet in the late 1960s, so Colossus was visualizing cutting edge tech of the time.

This may even be the first depiction of a routing display in all of screen sci-fi or even cinema, though I don’t have a historical perspective on other genres, like the spy genre, which is another place you might expect to see something like this. As always, if you know of an earlier one, let me know so I can keep this record up to date and honest.

A nice bit: curvy lines

Should the lines be straight or curvy? From Colossus’ point of view, the network is a simple graph. Straight lines between its nodes would suffice. But from the humans’ point of view, the literal shape of the transmission lines are important, in case they need to scramble teams to a location to manually cut the lines. Presuming these arcs mean that (and not just the way neon in a prop could bend), then the arcs are the right display. So this is good.

But, it breaks some world logic

The board presents some challenges with the logic of what’s happening in the story. If Colossus exists as a node in a network, and its managers want to cut it off from communication along that network, where is the most efficient place to “cut” communications? It is not at many points along the network. It is at the source.

Imagine painting one knot in a fishing net red and another one green. If you were trying to ensure that none of the strings that touch the red knot could trace a line to the green one, do you trim a bunch of strings in the middle, or do you cut the few that connect directly to the knot? Presuming that it’s as easy to cut any one segment as any other, the fewer number of cuts, the better. In this case that means more secure.

The network in Colossus looks to be about 40 nodes, so it’s less complicated than the fishing net. Still, it raises the question, what did the computer scientists in Colossus do to sever communications? Three lines disappear after they cut communications, but even if they disabled those lines, the rest of the network still exists. The display just makes no sense.

Before, happy / After, I will cut a Prez

Per the logic above, they would cut it off at its source. But the board shows it reaching out across the globe. You might think maybe they just cut Guardian off, leaving Colossus to flail around the network, but that’s not explicitly said in the communications between the Americans and the Russians, and the U.S. President is genuinely concerned about the AIs at this point, not trying to pull one over on the “pinkos.” So there’s not a satisfying answer.

It’s true that at this point in the story, the humans are still letting Colossus do its primary job, so it may be looking at every alternate communication network to which it has access: telephony, radio, television, and telegraph. It would be ringing every “phone” it thought Guardian might pick up, and leaving messages behind for possible asynchronous communications. I wish a script doctor had added in a line or three to clarify this.

  • FORBIN
  • We’ve cut off its direct lines to Guardian. Now it’s trying to find an indirect line. We’re confident there isn’t one, but the trouble will come when Colossus realizes it, too.

Too slow

Another thing that seems troubling is the slow speed of the shifting route. The segments stay illuminated for nearly a full second at a time. Even with 1960s copper undersea cables and switches, electronic signals should not take that long. Telephony around the world was switched from manual to automatic switching by the 1930s, so it’s not like it’s waiting on a human operating a switchboard.

You’re too slow!

Even if it was just scribbling its phone number on each network node and the words “CALL ME” in computerese, it should go much faster than this. Cinematically, you can’t go too fast or the sense of anticipation and wonder is lost, but it would be better to have it zooming through a much more complicated network to buy time. It should feel just a little too fast to focus on—frenetic, even.

This screen gets 15 seconds of screen time, and if you showed one new node per frame, that’s only 360 states you need to account for, a paltry sum compared to the number of possible paths it could test across a 38 node graph between two points.

Plus the speed would help underscore the frightening intelligence and capabilities of the thing. And yes I understand that that is a lot easier said than done nowadays with digital tools than with this analog prop.

Realistic-looking search strategies

Again, I know this was a neon, analog prop, but let’s just note that it’s not testing the network in anything that looks like a computery way. It even retraces some routes. A brute force algorithm would just test every possibility sequentially. In larger networks there are pathfinding algorithms that are optimized in different ways to find routes faster, but they don’t look like this. They look more like what you see in the video below. (Hat tip to YouTuber gray utopia.)

This would need a lot of art direction and the aforementioned speed, but it would be more believable than what we see.

What’s the right projection?

Is this the right projection to use? Of course the most accurate representation of the earth is a globe, but it has many challenges in presenting a phenomenon that could happen anywhere in the world. Not the least of these is that it occludes about half of itself, a problem that is not well-solved by making it transparent. So, a projection it must be. There are many, many ways to transform a spherical surface into a 2D image, so the question becomes which projection and why.

The map uses what looks like a hand-drawn version of Peirce quincuncial projection. (But n.b. none of the projection types I compared against it matched exactly, which is why I say it was hand-drawn.) Also those longitude and latitude lines don’t make any sense; though again, a prop. I like that it’s a non standard projection because screw Mercator, but still, why Peirce? Why at this angle?

Also, why place time zone clocks across the top as if they corresponded to the map in some meaningful way? Move those clocks.

I have no idea why the Peirce map would be the right choice here, when its principle virtue is that it can be tessellated. That’s kind of interesting if you’re scrolling and can’t dynamically re-project the coastlines. But I am pretty sure the Colossus map does not scroll. And if the map is meant to act as a quick visual reference, having it dynamic means time is wasted when users look to the map and have to orient themselves.

If this map was only for tracking issues relating to Colossus, it should be an azimuthal map, but not over the north pole. The center should be the Colossus complex in Colorado. That might be right for a monitoring map in the Colossus Programming Office. This map is over the north pole, which certainly highlights the fact that the core concern of this system is the Cold War tensions between Moscow and D.C. But when you consider that, it points out another failing. 

Later in the film the map tracks missiles (not with projected paths, sadly, but with Mattel Classic Football style yellow rectangles). But missiles could conceivably come from places not on this map. What is this office to do with a ballistic-missile submarine off of the Baja peninsula, for example? Just wait until it makes its way on screen? That’s a failure. Which takes us to the crop.

Crop

The map isn’t just about missiles. Colossus can look anywhere on the planet to test network connections. (Even nowadays, near-earth orbit and outer space.) Unless the entire network was contained just within the area described on the map, it’s excluding potentially vital information. If Colossus routed itself through through Mexico, South Africa, and Uzbekistan before finally reconnecting to Guardian, users would be flat out of luck using that map to determine the leak route. And I’m pretty sure they had a functioning telephone network in Mexico, South Africa, and the Balkan countries in the 1960s.

This needs a complete picture

SInce the missiles and networks with which Colossus is concerned are potentially global, this should be a global map. Here I will offer my usual fanboy shout-outs to the Dymaxion and Pacific-focused Waterman projection for showing connectedness and physical flow, but there would be no shame in showing the complete Peirce quincuncial. Just show the whole thing.

Maybe fill in some of the Pacific “wasted space” with a globe depiction turned to points of interest, or some other fuigetry. Which gives us a new comp something like this.

I created this proof of concept manually. With more time, I would comp it up in Processing or Python and it would be even more convincing. (And might have reached London.)

All told, this display was probably eye-opening for its original audience. Golly jeepers! This thing can draw upon resources around the globe! It has intent, and a method! And they must have cool technological maps in D.C.! But from our modern-day vantage point, it has a lot to learn. If they ever remake the film, this would be a juicy thing to fully redesign.

IQ Testing

When Joe is processed after his arrest, he is taken to a general IQ testing facility. He sits in a chair wearing headphones. A recorded voice asks, “If you have one bucket that holds two gallons, and another bucket that holds five gallons, how many buckets do you have?” Into a microphone he says, incredulous that this is a question, “Two?” The recorded voice says, “Thank you!”

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Joe looks to his left to see another subject is trying to put a square blue peg into the middle round hole of a panel and of course failing. Joe looks to his right, to see another subject with a triangular green peg in hand that he’s trying to put into the round middle hole in his interface. Small colored bulbs above each hole are unlit, but they match the colors of the matching blocks, so let’s presume they illuminate when the correct peg is inserted. When you look closely, it’s also apparent that the blocks are tethered to the panel so they’re not lost, and each peg is tethered directly below its matching hole. So there are lots and lots of cues that would let a subject figure it out. And yet, they are not. The subject to Joe’s right even eyes Joe suspiciously and turns his body to cover his test so Joe won’t try and crib…uh…“answers.”

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Comedy

The comedy in the scene comes from how rudimentary these challenges are. Most toddlers could complete the shape test. Even if you couldn’t figure out the shapes, you could match the colors, i.e. the blue object goes in the hole under the blue bulb. Most preschoolers could answer the spoken challenge. It underscores the stupidity of this world that generalized IQ tests for adults test below grade school levels.

IQ Testing

Since Binet invented the first one in 1904, IQ testing has a long, and problematic past (racism and using it to justify eugenic arguments, just for instance) but it can have a rational goal: How do we measure the intelligence of a set of people (students in a classroom, or applicants to intelligence jobs) for strategic decisions about aptitude, assistance, and improvement? But intelligence is a very slippery concept, and complicated to study much less test. The good news in this case is that the citizens of Idiocracy don’t have very sophisticated intellects, so very basic tests of intelligence should suffice.

Some nice things

So, that said, the shape test has some nice aspects. The panel is angled so the holes are visible and targetable, without being so vertical it’s easy to drop the pegs while manipulating them. The panel is plenty thick for durability and cleaning. The speech-to-text tech seems to work perfectly, unlike the errors and bad design that riddle most technologies in Idiocracy.

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A garden path match

There’s an interesting question of affordances in the device. You can see in the image above that the yellow round block fits just fine in the square hole. Ordinarily, a designer would want to prevent errors like this by, say, increasing the diameter of the round peg (and its hole) so that it couldn’t be inserted into the square hole. That version of the test would just test the time it took by even trial-and-error to match pegs to their matching holes, then you could rank subjects by time-to-completion. But by allowing the round peg to fit in the square hole, you complicate the test with a “garden path” branch where some subjects can get lost in what he thinks is a successful subtask. This makes it harder to compare subjects fairly, because another subject might not have wandered down this path and paid an unfair price in their time-to-complete.

Another complication is that this test has so many different clues. Do they notice the tethers? Do subjects notice the colored bulbs? (What about color blind subjects?) Having it test cognitive skills as well as fine-motor manipulation skills as well as perception skills seems quite complicated and less likely to enable fair comparisons. 

We must always scrutinize IQ tests because people put so much stock in them and it can be very much to an individual’s detriment. Designers of these tests ought to instrument them carefully for passive and active feedback about when the test itself is proving to be problematic.

Challenging the “superintelligent?”

A larger failing of the test is that it doesn’t challenge Joe at all. All his results would tell him is that he’s much much more intelligent than these tests are built for. Fair enough, there’s nothing in the world of Idiocracy which would indicate a need to test for superintelligence among the population, but this test had to be built by someone(s), generations ago. Could they not even have the test work on someone as smart as themselves? That’s all it would need to test Joe. But we live in a world that should be quite cautious about the emergence of a superintelligence. It would be comforting to imagine that we could test for that. Maybe we should include the Millennium Problems at the end of every test. Just in case.

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Another Idiot Test

As “luck” would have it, Trump tweeted an IQ test just this morning. (I don’t want to link to it to directly add any fuel to his fire, but you can Google it easily.) It’s an outrageous political video ad. As you watch it:

  • Do you believe that a single anecdote about a troubled, psychotic individual is generalizable to everyone with brown skin? Or even to everyone with brown skin who is not American and seeking legal asylum in the U.S.?
  • Do you ignore the evidence of the past decades (and the last week) that show it’s conservative white males who are much more of a problem? (Noting that vox is a liberal-leaning publication, but look at the article’s citations.)
  • Can you tell that the war drums under the ad are there only to make you feel scared, appealing to your emotions with cinematic tricks?
  • Do you uncritically fall for implicature and the slippery slope fallacy?

If the answers to all these are yes, well, sorry. You’ve failed an IQ test put to you by one of the most blatantly racist political ads since WIllie Horton. (Not many ads warrant a deathbed statement of regret, but that one did.) Maybe it’s best you take the rest of the week off treating yourself. Leave town. Take a road trip somewhere. Eat some ice cream.

For the rest of you, congratulations on passing the test. We have 5 days until the election. Kick the racist bastards and the bastards enabling the racist bastards out.

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.

Idiocracy_surveillance14

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.

The Cookie

In one of the story threads, Matt uses an interface as part of his day job at Smartelligence to wrangle an AI that is the cloned a mind of a client named Greta. Matt has three tasks in this role. 

  1. He has to explain to her that she is an artificial intelligence clone of a real world person’s mind. This is psychologically traumatic, as she has decades of memories as if she were a real person with a real body and full autonomy in the world.
  2. He has to explain how she will do her job: Her responsibilities and tools.
  3. He has to “break” her will and coerce her to faithfully serve her master—who is the the real-world Greta. (The idea is that since virtual Greta is an exact copy, she understands real Greta’s preferences and can perform personal assistant duties flawlessly.)

The AI is housed in a small egg-shaped device with a single blue light camera lens. The combination of the AI and the egg-shaped device is called “The Cookie.” Why it is not called The Egg is a mystery left for the reader, though I hope it is not just for the “Cookie Monster” joke dropped late in the episode. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Bulletin Board

Johnny finds he needs a favor from a friend in cyberspace. We see Johnny type something on his virtual keyboard, then selects from a pull down menu.

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A quick break in the action: In this shot we are looking at the real world, not the virtual, and I want to mention how clear and well-defined all the physical actions by actor Keanu Reeves are. I very much doubt that the headset he is wearing actually worked, so he is doing this without being able to see anything.

Will regular users of virtual reality systems be this precise with their gestures? Datagloves have always been expensive and rare, making studies difficult. But several systems offer submillimeter gestural tracking nowadays: version 2 of Microsoft Kinect, Google’s Soli, and Leap Motion are a few, and much cheaper and less fragile than a dataglove. Using any of these for regular desktop application tasks rather than games would be an interesting experiment.

Back in the film, Johnny flies through cyberspace until he finds the bulletin board of his friend. It is an unfriendly glowing shape that Johnny tries to expand or unfold without success.

JM-36-bboard-A-animated Continue reading

Cyberspace: Newark Copyshop

The transition from Beijing to the Newark copyshop is more involved. After he travels around a bit, he realizes he needs to be looking back in Newark. He “rewinds” using a pull gesture and sees the copyshop’s pyramid. First there is a predominantly blue window that unfolds as if it were paper.

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And then the copyshop initial window expands. Like the Beijing hotel, this is a floor plan view, but unlike the hotel it stays two dimensional. It appears that cyberspace works like the current world wide web, with individual servers for each location that can choose what appearance to present to visitors.

Johnny again selects data records, but not with a voice command. The first transition is a window that not only expands but spins as it does so, and makes a strange jump at the end from the centre to the upper left.

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Once again Johnny uses the two-handed expansion gesture to see the table view of the records. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.

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The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad

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Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading