Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

Credit: Timothy R. Butler/Stable Diffusion

How About Useful Products?

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 10:25 PM

Last week I saw a short video that demonstrated an amazing new fabric. Controlled by a small “smartphone” application, this fabric changes color.

It is very expensive, so the only people who will have garments made from it are teenagers.

This week, the Apple company rolled out new goggles for which it seems to believe there is a market. These goggles are, approximately, a moving-picture version of the Sawyers View Master. They cost $3500. Their only apparent current use is to rescue the Facebook company from its own metastupidity.

Over history, there’s been a lot of progress that begins by somebody inventing a thing, then convincing people that they want or need it. In the modern era, distinctions have blurred such that “want” and “need” have been led by the marketing community to become synonyms. The idea is that the odd gadget can be marketed so that people want it and then come to believe that their lives will be meaningless without it.

Most of us fall for it to some extent, though some of us are more susceptible than others. The sad fact is that much American innovation comprises an inventor putting something together, showing it to someone else who says, “Hey, you know what this would be good for?” and it is then marketed as being good for that. (This is pretty much how the entire pharmaceutical industry works: They cook something up, see what it does, and then sell it as having been developed to do it. Exhibit A is Viagra. It was developed to treat chest pain. The discovery was made that it did something else. When it comes to finding cures for a specific thing, identifying a problem and setting forth with the goal of solving it, the record is spotty. Exhibit A: The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. In search of vast government-supplied riches, the world’s pharmaceutical companies went full tilt at producing a safe, effective vaccine. They didn’t succeed, but they pretended they had, and everyone played along.)

The cycle of “innovation” proceeds. But every so often something shakes us, individually, not collectively, awake. A few days ago I watched an interview with the late, remarkable writer Shelby Foote. You might remember him from the Ken Burns Civil War series. The honey-tongued Foote died in 2005.

He described his mechanics of writing. He would begin in the morning, sitting at his desk with a clean sheet of paper, an inkwell, and a dip pen. Short of clay tablets, a stylus, and cuneiform, it is about as slow a way of writing as exists. This led to, or at least was not hindered by, careful selection of words, phrases, and sentences. He would write on average 500 words per day. After he had polished his work, only then, would he sit at a typewriter and make a copy that other people could read, though given his precision of speech I suspect his handwriting was pretty good. (If you are young, you might ask your parents or grandparents what handwriting is.)

Foote’s description was not as much food for thought as it was an accusation, to which charge I am guilty as sin. I do not and shall never have the discipline to write in that fashion, admire it though I do. Instead, I use all kinds of gadgets and connections to smooth my writing. I suspect that Foote sometimes spent as much time on a single sentence as I do on an entire column or chapter. And it shows. There and here.

Writing does not require a computer. It does not require a typewriter. All it requires is something to write on and something to write with. (And in the extreme it doesn’t even require those things. If it’s all you had, you could use just your mind and your memory. That’s all there was for a lot of centuries, yet the stories somehow survived and in many cases survive yet.)

Let’s stipulate that we need clothing and shelter. What we do not need is clothing that changes color. This is one of those times when something interesting was developed, then a way to use it — to make money off of it — had to be cobbled together. The marketing plan was, I think, based on what people might buy rather than whether it would actually be useful.

I know this because it took me about five seconds to come up with a really useful application of the color-change technology.

House paint.

By this I do not mean the ability to go from beige to mint green to sky blue. Instead, I mean something truly useful: House paint that is white on bright, sunny days, and black on cold days. The white paint would reflect the sun’s heat; the black would absorb it. Consider the energy savings. This isn’t a joke. Roofing materials, same thing. It could reduce both air conditioning and heating bills considerably.

Or you could have color-changing Bermuda shorts.

Apple’s expensive new toy is an example of an answer in search of a question, and none of the possible questions are good ones. Its basic premise is to transport you from reality to unreality and to immerse you in it. We have a name for people who are immersed in unreality. There are whole lines of the medical profession aimed at curing residence in unreality. There are institutions dedicated to housing those tied to unreality. Yes! For just $3500, Apple will sell you the equipment necessary to be effectively insane! (Apple is located in California, and in California the sanest thing you can do is try to escape its sorry reality. But $3500 will go a long way toward your escape not from reality but from California.)

To the extent that communication is an actual need, I think that photography is a necessity. We’d know a lot more about our prehistoric ancestors if we had photographs of their world rather than finger paintings on cave walls. Photographs effect us. When we think of the Civil War or World War I, we think of it in black-and white, as if that were the color palette of the world in those days. That’s an example of the power of photography. It can communicate a bit of reality, as imperfect as the means may be.

All the fancy imagery promised by the Apple gadget is counter to that. Its job is anti-reality. Yes, reality-based things can presumably be fed to it, but even then we’ve learned to distrust reality, courtesy of the Apple company.

You know what would be good?

A while back the Google company offered a product confusingly called “Google Glass.” This was (or is; accounts vary) basically a little computer screen that would clip to the corner of regular glasses. It was effectively a small computer monitor you could see with a glance all the time. Imagine having such a thing to display the shop manual while replacing the carburetor on your Mantis tiller! It didn’t take over your life; it gave you skills you need only temporarily.

Instead of expensive reality-denying goggles, something that would be useful is a Google Glass-style tiny wearable screen. You could connect it by Bluetooth (until something better than Bluetooth is developed) to your big-boy camera or your smart phone.

If you look back at photographs of events from a generation or two ago, you’ll often find photographers holding their Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras high above their heads, upside down. This was so they could look up and see through their waist-level viewfinders, enabling focusing and composition. Other photographers would just hold their cameras above their heads, in normal orientation, and hope for the best.

They would have killed for the ability to see through their viewfinders via some electronic device attached to their glasses. Think about the pictures you make yourself. Imagine the pictures you could and would make if your eyes weren’t tied to the physical camera. Imagine taking pictures at ground level without having to crawl across the floor or the dirt. Or being able to precisely aim that selfie stick.

Companies got almost there, but then they stopped. I have applications on the tablet and phone that let me see what my proper Fuji cameras see. I can fire the camera from those devices. This is sometimes useful. But it is also terribly limited: I need one hand for the camera (or the monopod with the camera at the other end), and one hand for the tablet or phone. A tiny glasses-mounted screen would free both hands to position the camera, zoom the lens where needed, and so on.

This would be so easy, and it could be done inexpensively. I’d pay a couple hundred dollars for such a device. I know many people who would do the same. But it doesn’t exist.

Instead, Apple didn’t see a need and meet it, it invented an over-priced thing with no discernible purpose and hopes to create a need. Good luck with that.

I am looking forward to Apple’s Vision Pro 2.0. That’ll be the goggles with built-in radar to keep the dozen or so people who buy it from wandering into real traffic on their unreal excursions.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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