House of Representin’

The U.S. House of Representin’ in Idiocracy is a madhouse. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he takes his seat in the balcony with the other Cabinet members. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he enters the chamber and sits in the balcony with the rest of the Cabinet. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. There are spotlights roving across the Representatives, who don’t sit at desks but stand in a mosh pit. There is even a center-hung video display like you’d see at an indoor sports area. Six giant LED screens. Ring displays showing weird ASCII characters.

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Sadly, we do not get to The Sennit for a comparison.

Someone plays an entrance theme consisting mostly of a cowbell and grunts. Strobe lights flash. An announcer says, like he was announcing a World Wrestling Entertainment performer, “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of America!” Camacho comes out of a side door screaming. He’s dressed in lots of red and white stripes with a cape made of the union blue. (n.b. The federal code forbids the wearing the flag as apparel.) He does some made-up karate poses. There are logos on the rostrum and currency sheets for wallpaper. He stands at the lectern and begins his address to the Representatives by saying, “Shut up.”

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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.

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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Luke’s predictive HUD

When Luke is driving Kee and Theo to a boat on the coast, the car’s heads-up-display shows him the car’s speed with a translucent red number and speed gauge. There are also two broken, blurry gauges showing unknown information.

Suddenly the road becomes blocked by a flaming car rolled onto the road by a then unknown gang. In response, an IMPACT warning triangle zooms in several times to warn the driver of the danger, accompanied by a persistent dinging sound.

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It commands attention effectively

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Viper Controls

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The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet.  It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version).  Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.

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Mark II Viper Cockpit

The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans.  It is a very old system.  The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate.  A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.

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Mark VII Viper Cockpit

The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information).  All other displays are digital screens.  A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface.  Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable.  Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.

Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.

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When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems.  The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.

The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.

Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor .

 

Usability Concerns

The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role.  The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture.  But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.

Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping.  Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.

Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult.  Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.

Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat.  The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.

If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it! 

Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training.  They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.

Dradis Console

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Dradis is the primary system that the Galactica uses to detect friendly and enemy units beyond visual range.  The console appears to have a range of at least one light second (less than the distance from Earth to the Moon), but less than one light minute (one/eighth the distance from Earth to the Sun).

How can we tell?  We know that it’s less than one light minute because Galactica is shown orbiting a habitable planet around a sun-like star.  Given our own solar system, we would have at least some indication of ships on the Dradis at that range and the combat happening there (which we hear over the radios).  We don’t see those on the Dradis.

We know that it’s at least one light second because Galactica jumps into orbit (possibly geosynchronous) above a planet and is able to ‘clear’ the local space of that planet’s orbit with the Dradis

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The sensor readings are automatically interpreted into Friendly contacts, Enemy contacts, and missiles, then displayed on a 2d screen emulating a hemisphere. A second version of the display shows a flat 2d view of the same information.


Friendly contacts are displayed in green, while enemy units (Cylons) are displayed in red.  The color of the surrounding interface changes from orange to red when the Galactica moves to Alert Stations.

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The Dradis is displayed on four identical displays above the Command Table, and is viewable from any point in the CIC.  ‘Viewable’ here does not mean ‘readable’.  The small size, type, and icons shown on the screen are barely large enough to be read by senior crew at the main table, let alone officers in the second or third tier of seating (the perspective of which we see here).

It is possible that these are simply overview screens to support more specific screens at individual officer stations, but we never see any evidence of this.

Whatever the situation, the Dradis needs to be larger in order to be readable throughout the CIC and have more specific screens at officer stations focused on interpreting the Dradis.

As soon as a contact appears on the Dradis screen, someone (who appears to be the Intelligence Officer) in the CIC calls out the contact to reiterate the information and alert the rest of the CIC to the new contact.  Vipers and Raptors are seen using a similar but less powerful version of the Galactica’s sensor suite and display.  Civilian ships like Colonial One have an even less powerful or distinct radar system.

 

2d display of 3d information

The largest failing of the Dradis system is in its representation of the hemisphere.  We never appear to see the other half of the sphere. Missing half the data is pretty serious. Theoretically, the Galactica would be at the center of a bubble of information, instead of picking an arbitrary ‘ground plane’ and showing everything in a half-sphere above that (cutting out a large amount of available information).

The Dradis also suffers from a lack of context: contacts are displayed in 3 dimensions inside the view, but only have 2 dimensions of reference on the flat screen in the CIC.  For a reference on an effective 3d display on a 2d screen, see Homeworld’s (PC Game, THQ and Relic) Sensor Manager:

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In addition to rotation of the Sensor Manager (allowing different angles of view depending on the user’s wishes), the Sensor Manager can display reference lines down to a ‘reference plane’ to show height above, and distance from, a known point.  In Homeworld, this reference point is often the center of the selected group of units, but on the Dradis it would make sense for this reference point to be the Galactica herself.

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Dradis Contact

Overall, the crew of the Galactica never seems to be inhibited by this limitation.  The main reasons they could be able to work around this limitation include:

  • Extensive training
  • Effective communication between crew members
  • Experience operating with limited information.  

This relies heavily on the crew operating at peak efficiency during an entire combat encounter.  That is a lot to ask from anyone.  It would be better to improve the interface and lift the burden off of a possibly sleep deprived crewmember.

The Dradis itself displays information effectively about the individual contacts it sees.  This isn’t visible at the distances involved in most CIC activities, but would be visible on personal screens easily.  Additionally, the entire CIC doesn’t need to know every piece of information about each contact.

In any of those three cases, crew efficiency would be improved (and misunderstandings would be limited) by improving how the Dradis displayed its contacts on its screen.

FTL – Activation

The Battlestar Galactica has at least two Faster-than-Light engines (which might be easier to think of as teleportation engines), activated during a complex sequence. The sequence involves:

  1. An explicit, direct command from Commander Adama
  2. Complex calculations on dedicated computers
  3. Double-checking by a large portion of the CIC staff
  4. and finally, a dedicated key and button to initiate the actual jump

Making an FTL jump is not a standard procedure for the Galactica, and it is implied that it has been decades since the ship carried out an actual jump.  This is because of the danger in landing off-course, the difficulty in the calculations, and wear on what is likely a very expensive component.  We see that many civilian ships do not have FTL capability.

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The FTL engine allows the Galactica to instantly travel between one point in the star system, and another point in the star system.  Dense books of pre-made calculations are kept in the Galactica’s CIC to enter into the ship’s FTL computers.

Multiple teams each begin separate calculations, using the Galactica’s FTL computers as giant calculators for their hand-written/typed equations.  The teams then cross-check their answers against each other, using a senior officer (in this case, Lt. Gaeta) as the final confirmation.

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Once all teams agree on an FTL jump coordinate, the information is plugged into a separate system to “spool up” the FTL drive.

Lt. Gaeta then pulls out a special key that fits into a dedicated slot in the FTL system in the CIC.  The key has two cylindrical pins that each glow a distinct blue, and are each different lengths.  The handle of the key has a matching shape on the console as well, so that the key can only fit in one way.

Once the key is inserted, Lt. Gaeta turns the key and announces that the FTL drive is active.  Commander Adama then gives the order to jump, and Lt. Gaeta pushes a separate button (which has until now been inactive) that jumps the Galactica to the coordinates entered.

After the Galactica finishes its FTL Jump, Commander Adama asks for confirmation that they have arrived successfully at their destination.  Lt. Gaeta runs across the CIC to a navigation console and checks the screen there for the ship’s location.  From the information on that screen, Lt. Gaeta confirms that the Galactica has re-entered real space at exactly the place they were intended to be. (Or might report an error, but we never see this.)

The entire CIC lets out a breath of relief and begins clapping in celebration.  Lt. Gaeta congratulates his navigation team for their work, and the CIC slowly resumes their task of running the ship.  The CIC crew is clearly unnerved by the jump, and everyone is thankful when they arrive safely at their destination.

The Current Position Screen

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This is the screen that Lt. Gaeta uses to confirm that they have successfully landed at their current target: geosynchronous orbit above their target body of mass.  He does not visibly use any of the controls on the console.  The screen autonomously zooms in on the ‘X’ marker, then displays a large, red, blinking triangle with “BSG 75” written above it (The Battlestar Galactica’s registry code).  The red ‘X’ is written inside a large sphere, which appears to be the object the Galactica was attempting to jump to.

All of the lines on this graph describe arcs, and appear to be orbital paths.  The Galactica is marked as being directly on one of these arcs.  Dotted arcs connect many other objects on the screen to each other.  These have no clear purpose or legend.

At the bottom center of the screen are the words “Waypoint Time”, “Waypoint Distance”, and “T.O.T.”  Above those words is a small label: “Synthetic Gravity Field 74.56”.  To the left of those words is an area of data that has been boxed off with the label “Optic Nav System Control.”

More text to the top left lists out information in a table format, but is unreadable to the viewer due to the resolution of the screens in the CIC.  The two rows of data beside the labels do not have column headers or unit indicators.

CIC

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The Battlestar Galactica’s Combat Information Center, or CIC, is a medical-theater-like room that acts as the military nerve center and brain of the Galactica.  It is located near the center of the ship, is heavily armored and protected by armed guards, and has a staff of between 35-50 people.

The two highest ranking officers on the ship, Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh, typically stand at the center of the auditorium around the Command Board.  This position lets them hear status reports from around the room, and issue orders to the entire ship.

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Various pods of workstations provide seating for the rest of the staff.  These stations are grouped by function.  We see Navigation crew sitting near other navigation crew, weapons officers near other combat functions, communications near the center, and engineering given a special area up top.

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Phone kiosks are placed throughout the CIC, with two high profile kiosks on the Command Board.  Large display boards and the central Dradis Console provide information to the entire crew of the CIC.

 

Organized Chaos

The CIC is dealing with a lot of information from all over the ship and trying to relate it to the lead officers who are making decisions.  There is a lot of activity related to this information overload, but the design of the CIC has organized it into a reasonably effective flow.

Teams communicate with each other, then that decision flows forward to lead officers, who relate it to Admiral Adama.
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Orders flow in the opposite direction.

Admiral Adama can very quickly shout out an order from the center of the CIC and have his lead officers hear it all around him.  It can also act as a failsafe: other officers can also hear the same order and act as a confirmation step.  From there, the officers can organize their teams to distribute more detailed orders to the entire ship.

Large screens show information that the entire CIC needs to know, while smaller screens display information for specific crew or groups.

Overall, the stadium-like construction of the CIC works well for the low tech approach that the Galactica takes after.  Without introducing automation and intelligent computer networks onto the bridge, there is little that could be done to improve the workflow.

Imperial-issue Media Console

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When she wonders about Chewbacca’s whereabouts, Malla first turns to the Imperial-issue Media Console. The device sits in the living space, and consists of a personal console and a large wall display. The wall display mirrors the CRT on the console. The console has a QWERTY keyboard, four dials, two gauges, a sliding card reader, a few red and green lights on the side, and a row of randomly-blinking white lights along the front.

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Public Service Requests

As Malla approaches it, it is displaying an 8-bit kaleidoscope pattern and playing a standard-issue “electronics” sound. Malla presses a handful of buttons—here it’s important to note the difficulty of knowing what is being pressed when the hand we’re watching is covered in a mop—and then moves through a confusing workflow, where…

  1. She presses five buttons
  2. She waits a few seconds
  3. As she is pressing four more buttons…
  4. …the screen displays a 22-character string (a password? A channel designation?) ↑***3-   ↓3&39÷   ↑%63&-:::↓
  5. A screen flashes YOU HAVE REACHED TRAFFIC CONTROL in black letters on a yellow background
  6. She presses a few more buttons, and another 23-character string appears on screen ↑***3-   XOXOO   OXOOX   XOOXO-↑ (Note that the first six characters are identical to the first six characters of the prior code. What’s that mean? And what’s with all the Xs and Os? Kisses and hugs? A binary? I checked. It seems meaningless.)
  7. An op-art psychedelic screen of orange waves on black for a few seconds
  8. A screen flashes NO STARSHIPS IN AREA
  9. Malla punches the air in frustration.

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Spinning Pizza Interface

As soon as the Rodger Young clears the dock, the interfaces before Ibanez and Barclow change to…well, this.

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I’m pretty good at apologetics, but what this is and how this does anything useful, I just…I’m at a loss. Is this supposed to be the active sweep of a radar dish? Some indication of the flywheel engine? Or the position of that spinning column on the bridge? How are any of these things worth distracting a pilot with a giant yellow spinning pizza?