May 25th, 2020

Lana Del Rey is a real artist

Lana Del Rey recently caused some controversy in the media when she posted an impassioned "Question for the culture" on her Instagram feed (Instagram being the new Facebook), which is actually more like a statement than a question. The "Question" amounts to about a page of text, but it's reasonably well-written and coherent, which is probably a lot more than most pop stars in the world could manage to produce. The text is partially an act of self-defense or perhaps self-justification based on the fact that many women have attacked Del Rey over the years for allegedly promoting abuse against women, a public image which may have been amplified by Del Rey's general dismissal of feminism as unimportant. In her so-called "Question", Del Rey takes a slightly different approach, asserting: "I'm not not a feminist," a wording which makes it clear that she is aware that she doesn't fit most "feminists'" definition of what a "feminist" should be.

But Del Rey's statement isn't really about gender politics; it's more about her music and what she expresses with it. Del Rey takes a bold and uncharacteristically confrontational tone at the beginning of her statement, listing several currently-popular pop and rap stars and stating that they have had hit songs "about being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating etc", then asking, since those folks have had success with that particular aspect, whether Del Rey can continue singing the kinds of songs she is known for: "Can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money--or whatever I want--without being crucified or saying that I'm glamorizing abuse??????"

Del Rey goes on to say: "I'm fed up with female writers and alt singers saying that I glamorize abuse when in reality I'm just a glamorous person singing about the realities of what we are all now seeing are very prevalent emotionally abusive relationships all over the world." People tend to see Del Rey singing sad songs about failed relationships and assume that since she's singing about them, she must be promoting them. This goes back to the classic question of "Portrayal or advocacy?" in art: When you read a book, watch a movie, or hear a song about something which is perceived as negative, there's always the question of whether that art is simply portraying something negative because art also includes the dark side of the world, or whether that art is actually advocating for what it's portraying by trying to promote it. It's sometimes difficult to draw the line, and people often misinterpret the intentions of art in various ways; the movie Trainspotting was seen as glamorizing the use of heroin, which makes me think that the critics who made this claim never saw the movie, because anyone who's seen the movie knows that there is absolutely nothing remotely glamorous about how it portrays heroin use. If you're going to be that clueless, then you might as well claim that The Godfather is an endorsement of organized crime, because after all, that's what the movie is about.

Del Rey doesn't just sing about the negative experiences she's had in relationships in the past, she opens up about them in a way that is accessible and understandable to anyone who listens to her music, and not only that, when attacked by people who don't understand art or what Del Rey is trying to say, she doubles down on her artistic integrity by defending it instead of trying to excuse it. Towards the end of her statement, Del Rey sums it up by saying: "I've been honest and optimistic about the challenging relationships I've had. News flash! That's just how it is for many women."

Here we see the difference between an artist and an entertainer: An artist intends to use their art to portray something real, genuine, and sincere; an entertainer uses their creativity to create entertainment, something which will please the audience without disturbing them into thinking. It's not unlike Robert Hardy's distinction between a "film" and a "movie" which I wrote about recently. An artist, when attacked as an artist (or when their art is attacked), will defend their art and their artistic vision by explaining what it stands for and why, because they are not willing to compromise on that artistic vision to accommodate people's misunderstanding or capitulate to their demands that art must be what they want it to be; an entertainer will engage in public relations to try to cover up anything controversial in their creations if that controversy could be seen as reducing their profitability, because entertainment is a product to be sold, not to make an artistic statement.

While I'm not an expert on feminism (and, as a man, may not be especially qualified to comment on it), I would dare to say that Del Rey is also representing feminism in a very real way by daring to say what she wants to say. Indeed, Del Rey concludes by saying that she believes she is helping other women "to just be able to say whatever the hell they wanted to in their music--unlike my experience where if I even expressed a note of sadness in my first two records I was deemed literally hysterical as though it was literally the 1920s." She's right: Feminism isn't about conforming to a narrow set of expectations; it's about the freedom to be yourself.

Lana Del Rey is a real artist. She creatively expresses real thoughts, feelings, and experiences which are universal to all (or at least most) people and does her best to make those expressions beautiful, sincere, thought-provoking and heart-touching. She is right to defend her art against the people who think that she's not the right kind of artist, her lifestyle against the bigots who think she's not the right kind of feminist, and herself against the people who think that she's not the right kind of person. It is a shameful reflection on the state of humanity when women are seen as promoting "female empowerment" when they produce the stupidest, most vile trash imaginable about being promiscuous and exploiting their physical appearance to make money, and then people who make genuine emotional statements are vilified for doing so.

The failed wearable computing revolution

Around the year 2005, wearable computing technology reached a certain sweet spot which it hadn't been in before and will probably never be in again. Head-mounted displays (HMDs) had become small enough that they could be worn reasonably comfortably in an everyday context; the huge, helmet-like devices which people associated with the first public awareness of "virtual reality" in the 1980s had become relatively small devices which could mount onto a simple visor or even onto a pair of eyeglasses.

At that time, I started developing plans to build a self-made wearable computer, something which I could use to navigate city streets when I was walking around somewhere so that I didn't have to hold a paper map in my hands, something which could show me the current time, temperature, and other environmental variables at all times in a corner of my vision so that I could see these details at any point in time without having to look down at a watch, something that I could use to read books without having to avert my eyes from whatever I was doing at the same time. In those days, I did a lot of online window-shopping at tekgear.com, an e-store which specializes in devices for mobile and wearable computing. Although the site is still around, they've definitely lost a lot of their relevance, because companies have largely stopped manufacturing the kinds of devices you could find there in the first decade of the 21st century.

Just what exactly could you find there back then which you can't find now? Quite a lot, actually. There were devices like the following:

- Microvision Nomad, an SVGA Monocular Display which sold for $6,995 in 2005 and looks like something a cyborg from a 1980s movie would wear.
- Seos HMD 120/40, a head-mounted display which literally makes it look like you're wearing a projector on your head, and which sold for $62,500 in 2005. It weighs about 2.2 pounds.
- Vuzix Tac-Eye, a see-through AMOLED display mounted to what looks like a pair of safety goggles.
- Ingineo Eyetop (also spelled "Eye Top"), a device of a similar form factor except that the dorky-looking safety glasses are replaced by a sleek set of narrow sunglasses that make you look kind of like Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or any random cyberpunk from the 1990s who thought that wearing sunglasses is all you need to know a lot about computers.
- Icuiti V920, a similar-looking device which isn't actually see-through and is closer to the aforementioned virtual-reality goggles of the 1980s.
- A whole line of devices from MicroOptical which included the CV-1, CV-3, and SV-6, the latter of which was available in "Left Eye" and "Right Eye" variants.

For me, though, the standout device was always the Shimadzu DataGlass 2/A, because it was a monocular (it fit over one eye instead of both eyes, leaving one eye free), it took a standard computer VGA/SVGA-cable input (many devices in this class were designed for NTSC/PAL-style signals from a television), and it seemed the most solid, not needing to be mounted on a set of glasses but being capable of acting as a stand-alone device. If I had had one of these devices, I would probably have completed my wearable-computer project, but I seem to recall that the Shimadzu DataGlass 2/A sold for about $3,000 when I planned this project around 2005, which is more than I was willing to shell out for a product which had no reviews online.

And that's the problem with wearable computing displays: Despite apparently being of good quality, none of the devices in this list got any significant media attention or people using them and reporting their experiences on websites where people could actually see how the devices worked for real people in real life. I was willing to experiment and try out a device myself, but I wasn't willing to spend thousands of dollars for something that just might not work out well. Some people (including myself) thought that as the technology matured and became more widespread, these prices would come down, which is what usually happens with a new consumer technology; the only reason why you can buy a smartphone or laptop for well under $1,000 today is because these devices are so widely-used that they can capitalize on economies of scale. Monocular head-mounted displays like the ones described above cost several thousand dollars around the year 2005 not because they were so much more advanced than what you'd find in a laptop or smartphone today, but because they had a fairly small target audience: Not many people were buying such devices, and so manufacturers needed to make more money per-unit to recover their R&D costs.

But prices for these HMDs didn't go down. Instead, the devices simply disappeared from the market. Most people didn't want to wear something like this on their heads, and as smartphones exploded into mainstream popularity around the latter half of the 2000s decade, there was less and less need to wear such a thing on your head; people would rather hold a device in their pockets and hands than on their head and in front of their face. Today, the market for head-mounted displays hasn't gotten better; it has gotten significantly worse, as nearly all devices of this category have simply disappeared. They're no longer being manufactured, and after the Google Glass debacle, people seem to have little interest in exploring this market segment anymore.

Google Glass failed because Google had one of the most catastrophically stupid product ideas which any major high-tech company has had in the last 20 years: They decided to put a camera on the device. At the time, this probably seemed like a good idea because people like to take photos and videos of random things, but this design decision resulted in Google Glass becoming a huge privacy concern, with many public buildings actually banning entry for anyone wearing such a device. What really would have worked out much better would be to make the device as just a heads-up display without a camera; that would have avoided most of the controversy, I think, but the problem is that you can't put the genie back in the bottle. At this point, such devices have been associated with cameras, and so you have the dual problem that if you make such a device without a camera, everyone is going to say "What, this device doesn't have a camera?! What kind of garbage is that?" (imagine an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy without a camera; who would buy it?), but if you do make the device with a camera, people are going to shun anyone who wears the device. Then, too, it's not easy to tell whether a tiny device like this has a camera or not, so even if you made the device without a camera, most people wouldn't be able to tell without examining the device very closely. Google Glass ruined the market for wearable headsets, and at this point, due to social and legal factors, it's unlikely that such a device will ever be able to attain mass popularity. Ever.

This is really a shame, because the rest of my wearable-computer project would have been relatively easy to put together. At that time, there were devices like the Xybernaut MA-V wearable computer (which was also sold on Tekgear), but this device seems to have disappeared from the market entirely. It was a very attractive and compact little computer available with Windows 98, Windows 2000, or Linux and it was made to be a truly wearable computing solution (the "MA" stood for "Mobile Assistant"), but even Xybernaut's website has disappeared, leading me to believe that the company has gone out of business altogether. Even if I hadn't been able to find a built-to-purpose "wearable computer", however, it wouldn't have been that difficult to put a laptop in a backpack and carry it around that way; a cable from a headset could easily have run down my neck and back into the backpack. And even if I'd wanted something smaller than that (which I don't think would have been the case; a basic laptop is not too heavy to carry in a backpack), there would have been plenty of options. Today, tiny computers like the Raspberry Pi mean that it's easy to carry around a fully-featured computer in your pocket, but while the first Raspberry Pi didn't come out until 2012, there were other similar types of miniature single-board computers available in 2005; they may not have been quite as compact, fully-featured, or user-friendly as the Raspberry Pi, but they existed. Or, heck, I could have just made my own homebrew single-board computer; soldering together something on a piece of protoboard using a simple microprocessor isn't that difficult. (Making it produce a real VGA video output would have been more complex, but still doable.)

Similarly, good input devices for mobile computing were already widely available by 2005. Tekgear still sells chording keyboards (i.e. not full QWERTY keyboards, but keyboards with a limited number of buttons that use combinations of button presses to indicate specific letters) under the "Twiddler" brand name. Xybernaut also appears to have manufactured something called the Xybernaut arm keyboard, which of course sadly disappeared with the rest of the company. A nice product which gained some attention back in the day was the FrogPad keyboard from Frogpad Inc., which was a compact keyboard that was kind of a compromise between a QWERTY keyboard and a chording keyboard: It had 15 main keys, allowing you to type the most common letters with one keypress and other less with a "piggybacked key" function. (Frogpad also tragically disappeared from the market, and while there have been rumors of a reappearance, none of them have yet come to fruition.) For me, though, the desired device was always the L3 Systems WristPC, a small keyboard which is made to strap to your forearm for mobile use. It reminds me a bit of the one the player character wears in Omikron: The Nomad Soul (that keyboard was the only good thing about that game), and it would have been perfect for an everyday wearable computer. As a side note, while looking for more information about the WristPC, I found this blog post which lists some interesting and innovative keyboards designs that are probably worth a look for people like me who believe that the keyboard, not the mouse, is the main input device on a computer.

Speaking of mice, obviously a conventional mouse is probably not very practical for a wearable computer, but there were also several very good micro-trackball devices intended for these kinds of applications. The "finger trackball" is its own category of device, a sort of oversized ring which fits onto one of your fingers and features a tiny trackball with two buttons. There are also ultra-tiny trackballs of various brands which are fairly interchangeable. A popular manufacturer in this area seems to be Yumqua, and another one is Eigiis, although there are other manufacturers producing even smaller devices. I believe the Appoint Thumbelina was the model featured on Tekgear back in the day.

So yeah, things like input devices and the computer itself would not have been very difficult to make mobile, but all my plans for a wearable computer always stumbled at the display, because I just could not find or develop any way to make a usable head-mounted display that would have usable resolution (at least 640x480), worked with a (then-)standard 15-pin VGA cable input, and was small and light enough to wear comfortably in front of one of your eyes all day long. Building such a device in a home-based workshop is very difficult; everything else would have been easy, but the display would probably have needed to be bought as an off-the-shelf unit, hence the importance of devices like the Shimadzu DataGlass 2/A or MicroOptical SV-6. Unfortunately, I waited too long to get such a display; again, rather than getting cheaper, they disappeared from general availability. The lack of popularity of such devices and their exorbitant prices (that wasn't a typo when I wrote that the Seos HMD 120/40 costs $62,500, about as much as three decent cars when bought brand-new) means that you can't even find such devices second-hand on sites like eBay. To be fair, even if I had one of these headsets, most computers these days don't have VGA outputs anymore, so such a headset would not be usable with most of today's laptops (although one could conceivably use an adapter cable for this application). Again, Google Glass ruined everything; it's tempting to say that the guilt for the failure of the wearable computing revolution lies mostly with Google, but to be fair, even if Google Glass had never existed, it seems like there is a very limited market for wearables; the vast majority of people just do not want to wear an information display in front of their eyes for extended periods of time. And so one must conclude that the failure of this revolution, like most failures in humanity's history, does not lie with any one company or product, but with humanity itself.