Jasper’s car dashboard

Jasper is a longtime friend of Theo’’s who offers his home as a safe house for a time. Jasper’’s civilian vehicle features a device on its dashboard that merits some attention. It is something like a small laptop computer, with a flat screen in a roughly pill-shaped black plastic frame mounted in the center of the dashboard. The top half of this screen shows a view from a backwards-facing camera mounted on the vehicle.

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Green Laser Scan

In a very brief scene, Theo walks through a security arch on his way into the Ministry of Energy. After waiting in queue, he walks towards a rectangular archway. At his approach, two horizontal green laser lines scan him from head to toe. Theo passes through the arch with no trouble.

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Though the archway is quite similar to metal detection technology used in airports today, the addition of the lasers hints at additional data being gathered, such as surface mapping for a face-matching algorithm.

We know that security mostly cares about what’s hidden under clothes or within bodies and bags, rather than confirming the surface that security guards can see, so it’s not likely to be an actual technological requirement of the scan. Rather it is a visual reminder to participants and onlookers that the scan is in progress, and moreover that this the Ministry is a secured space.

Though we could argue that the signal could be made more visible, laser light is very eye catching and human eyes are most sensitive at 555nm, and this bright green is the closest to the 808 diode laser at 532nm. So for being an economic, but eye catching signal, this green laser is a perfect choice.

Report Card: The Faithful Wookiee

Read all The Faithful Wookiee reviews in chronological order.

Of course we understand that The Faithful Wookiee was an animation for children and teens, the script of which was thrown together in a short time. We understand that it is meant to be entertainment and not a prediction, building on the somewhat-unexpected success of a sci-fi movie released the year before. We get that the plot is, well, unlikely. We understand that 1978 was not a time when much thought was given to consistent and deeply thought-through worldbuilding with technology. We understand it is hand-drawn animation and all the limitations that come with this.

But, still, to ensure a critique is valuable to us, we must bypass these archaeological excuses and focus instead on the thing as produced. And for that, the short does not fare well.

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Children of Men: Overview

When it was released, Children of Men seemed a fanciful dystopia. Today with its depictions of environmental blight, terrorist bombs, refugee-phobia, and a militarized police state, it seems uncomfortably prescient. The film is sci-fi, but it doesn’t lean heavily on the use of interfaces for its storytelling. So while it will be only a handful of reviews, let’s celebrate the 10th anniversary of this dark film with some nerdy analysis.

Release Date: 05 January 2007 (USA)

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Plot

In the year 2010, humanity suddenly suffers from global infertility. Most of the world is thrown into chaos, but Britian soliders on under military rule. Refugees in this society are considered a threat to the nation, and they are routinely rounded up and deported or killed.

In 2027, one member of this society, named Theo Faron, is dutifully trudging on with his life when he is kidnapped and taken to meet his estranged wife Julian, now the leader of a secretive and militaristic refugee-rights organization. She convinces him to use his relationship to his powerful cousin Nigel to arrange transportation papers for a young woman. When Theo delivers the papers, he learns that the young woman, named Kee, is pregnant. Shocked at this symbol of hope, he protects her from a society that hates her, a government that will kill her, and the refugee-rights organization who wants to use the child for their own ends, escorting her at great personal cost to a fabled boat that can protect and nurture her and her child and thereby the future of humanity.

Escape door

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There is one last interface in The Faithful Wookiee we see in use. It’s one of those small interfaces, barely seen, but that invites lots of consideration. In the story, Boba and Chewie have returned to the Falcon and administered to Luke and Han the cure to the talisman virus. Relieved, Luke (who assigns loyalty like a puppy at a preschool) says,

“Boba, you’re a hero and a faithful friend. [He isn’t. —Editor] You must come back with us. [He won’t.What’s the matter with R2?”

C3PO says,“I’m afraid sir, it’s because you said Boba is a faithful friend and faithful ally. [He didn’t.] That simply does not feed properly into R2’s information banks.”

Luke asks, “What are you talking about?”

“We intercepted a message between Boba and Darth Vader, sir. Boba Fett is Darth Vader’s right-hand man. I’m afraid this whole adventure has been an Imperial plot.”

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Luke did not see this coming.

Luke gapes towards Boba, who has his blaster drawn and is backing up into an alcove with an escape hatch. Boba glances at a box on the wall, slides some control sideways, and a hatch opens in the ceiling. He says, deadpan, “We’ll meet again…friend,” before touching some control on his belt that sends him flying into the clear green sky, leaving behind a trail of smoke. Continue reading

Video call

After ditching Chewie, Boba Fett heads to a public video phone to make a quick report to his boss who turns out to be…Darth Vader (this was a time long before the Expanded Universe/Legends, so there was really only one villain to choose from).

To make the call, he approaches an alcove off an alley. The alcove has a screen with an orange bezel, and a small panel below it with a 12-key number panel to the left, a speaker, and a vertical slot. Below that is a set of three phone books. For our young readers, phone books are an ancient technology in which telephone numbers were printed in massive books, and copies kept at every public phone for reference by a caller.

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Headsets

Luke, Chewie, the comms officer aboard the Revenge, and this orange lizard/cat thing wear similar headsets in the short. Each consists of headphones with a coronal headband and a microphone on a boom that holds it in front of their mouths.

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The only time we see something resembling a control, Luke attempts to report back to the Rebel base. To do so, he uses his right hand to pinch (or hold?) the microphone as he says, “This is Y4 to base.” Then he releases the mic and continues, “He’s heading straight for a moon in…the Panna system.” Continue reading

Ship Console

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The only flight controls we see are an array of stay-state toggle switches (see the lower right hand of the image above) and banks of lights. It’s a terrifying thought that anyone would have to fly a spaceship with binary controls, but we have some evidence that there’s analog controls, when Luke moves his arms after the Falcon fires shots across his bow.

Unfortunately we never get a clear view of the full breadth of the cockpit, so it’s really hard to do a proper analysis. Ships in the Holiday Special appear to be based on scenes from A New Hope, but we don’t see the inside of a Y-Wing in that movie. It seems to be inspired by the Falcon. Take a look at the upper right hand corner of the image below.

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R. S. Revenge Comms

Note: In honor of the season, Rogue One opening this week, and the reviews of Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series behind us, I’m reopening the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews, starting with the show-within-a-show, The Faithful Wookie. Refresh yourself of the plot if it’s been a while.

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On board the R.S. Revenge, the purple-skinned communications officer announces he’s picked up something. (Genders are a goofy thing to ascribe to alien physiology, but the voice actor speaks in a masculine register, so I’m going with it.)

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He attends a monitor, below which are several dials and controls in a panel. On the right of the monitor screen there are five physical controls.

  • A stay-state toggle switch
  • A stay-state rocker switch
  • Three dials

The lower two dials have rings under them on the panel that accentuate their color.

Map View

The screen is a dark purple overhead map of the impossibly dense asteroid field in which the Revenge sits. A light purple grid divides the space into 48 squares. This screen has text all over it, but written in a constructed orthography unmentioned in the Wookieepedia. In the upper center and upper right are unchanging labels. Some triangular label sits in the lower-left. In the lower right corner, text appears and disappears too fast for (human) reading. The middle right side of the screen is labeled in large characters, but they also change too rapidly to make much sense of it.

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Back to the Forbidden Planet

Over the last few posts we’ve covered the Fermi Problem and hypotheses, which of the hypotheses sci-fi likes to write about, and which of the hypotheses it’s strategic to write about. This brings us back around to Forbidden Planet.

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As a species, we’re faced with a number of big problems that need solving. Some feel more abstract than others, but it sure would suck if we were wrong about that. And while sci-fi can be pure escapism, when it does, hopefully it serves as a mild indulgence rather than something which lets us ignore problems in the real world. As I’ve said before, it is part of my mission with this blog to get readers to not just watch sci-fi but to use it; to understand its effects and limitations; to decide how believable its scenarios are; and to think about the lessons you can take back with you to the real world.

This is why Forbidden Planet is such a stellar movie for me.

It is a singular example (in the survey at least) of humans encountering an ancient, vastly advanced, dead civilization through the “ruins” of its technology. There was no tense tête–à–tête diplomacy, or sexily-foreign green aliens to seduce, or any of those other Terran imperialist thrills.

I'm not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I’m not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I don’t want to demean its historical importance. It came at a time in cinematic history after a few decades where Hollywood created little more sci-fi than space opera for kids, and it proved enough of a commercial and critical success that suddenly sci-fi was a serious consideration for big budget attention. That meant broader reach, and more people thinking about speculative futures. (Heck, it meant enough serious sci-fi that I could keep a blog about the genre. So, you know, thanks for that.)

But more than its historical importance is that it’s the best model of a likely future. Just this past May, Adam Frank (an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester) and Woodruff Sullivan published “A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe.” In the paper they note that the 1,284 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler observatory scientists puts some lower-limit constraints on a few factors in the Drake equation.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

“Three of the seven terms in Drake’s equation are now known. We know the number of stars born each year. We know that the percentage of stars hosting planets is about 100. And we also know that about 20 to 25 percent of those planets are in the right place for life to form. This puts us in a position, for the first time, to say something definitive about extraterrestrial civilizations—if we ask the right question.”

Their work suggests that the odds are in favor of finding alien life—but finding evidence of it long dead. They suggest a shift in our attentions away from contacting a living civilization, towards cosmic archaeology. You know, like Forbidden Planet illustrates.

A graph from "A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe" showing the lower limit to the number of technological species in the universe as being 2.5x10^-24.

Number of Technological Species Ever in the Universe, from the paper.

Frankly it could stop there and be canonized for that purpose, but the film goes one better

We still don’t have great constraints for the other troubling component of Drake’s equation, and that’s how long technological civilizations tend to last. That question in turn raises the darker question of what tends to doom those civilizations. One possibility is that it is that technology itself is the thing, which is, again, what Forbidden Planet illustrates.

This is a blog about sci-fi interfaces, and I presume that readers are, like me, directly involved in shaping technology. So it is that this 60 year-old film has a one-two punch. It shows us both what the future will probably be like, and then turns our attention to something we can think about—and work to make right—now.

And that’s sci-fi we can use.

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