Let’s Talk About Stuff

Every once in a while we just need to randomly write about a bunch of different things that have nothing in common. Let’s open the grab bag, internet.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: With today’s issue, I’m going to throw the internet a bone. Recently, I found myself inspired by something a smart creative person named Sara Dietschy said about creativity. It may be my favorite thing said about creativity in the last couple of years. In this 2018 video, she discussed how she came up with an approach making videos that fed the algorithm and drew in the public, but then created content that she was personally interested in. “One for me, one for them,” as she put it. When her YouTube channel started growing by leaps and bounds, she leaned into the “one for them” approach … only to see her channel shrink. So she recalibrated the balance. But just being totally indulgent doesn’t work, either. “I think the most important thing is you can’t live in la-la land where everything you’re making is this most fulfilling art thing ever and also grow an audience you can create a career out of,” she said. So, in that spirit (and knowing the power of a backlink), I’m doing a grab-bag of sorts today, highlighting stuff online that I think is pretty cool, in hopes that you click on it and enjoy what you learn. Here’s one for you. — Ernie @ Tedium

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If someone wants to make a documentary from one of your articles, let them

Creativity is additive.

One person will see one thing if they touch on a topic. Someone else will bring a different lens to the material. The process reflects the general exchange of ideas, and its ability to strengthen the discourse if approached from a place of mutural respect and creative thinking.

I was reminded of this truism when I was contacted by Peter Dibble, a creator who expressed interest in making a documentary about a subject that I found extremely fascinating: The idea that the rail industry was the first mover on the barcode system, which came into wide use in retail about a decade later.

The system, called KarTrak, reflected a ton of creativity on the part of David Collins, a former rail employee who worked for Sylvania in the 1960s. This was a notably ambitious prototype for something that many consumers use today without even thinking about it, and its story matters because it shows what can go wrong and how those lessons can inform later success stories.

So when Dibble reached out to me and asked to use the article as the basis of a documentary, I of course said yes.

And watching the final result, which he sent me a couple of weeks ago, highlights just how important it is to have multiple people digging around ideas and building on past work, because they uncover things and add new colors to interesting stories. It’s 20 minutes, and it’s pretty great. Peter did a great job grabbing footage and adding color to an already colorful story.

A completely random list of things on the internet that I enjoy at this time

  1. This cult ’90s songwriter and his band. As you may be aware, I’m a sucker for sad-sap music types, and singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel has been at it longer than most, both with his ’90s band American Music Club and more recently on his own. His catalog has a number of particularly good entry points, including his 2018 solo album Hey Mr. Ferryman, but my favorite record Eitzel was involved with remains 1991’s Everclear. Above is “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” a standout from the band’s 1993 album Mercury.
  2. This attempt to teach people about the value of accessible masks. It’s the COVID era, so we of course have to talk about masks. There are some folks doing cool things with masks right now—I like the work artist Rob Sheridan has done on the face mask front, for example—but I wanted to give a special shout-out to this effort by the sibling team of Patrick and Jake deHahn, who have put a lot of work into highlighting the importance of using masks with clear frames so people can see what you’re saying. Both Patrick, a journalist who previously worked on my site ShortFormBlog and recently finished a run at Quartz, and Jake, a user interface designer, are deaf and wear cochlear implants. So they know how much this nod to accessibility matters. And now, so do you.
  3. This open-source effort to build a PowerPC notebook. I have an unhealthy fixation on processor architectures, and I find stuff like this fascinating. This open-source initiative, which is being driven by crowdfunding at this time, aims to develop a working PowerPC laptop, and has reached some of its initial funding goals. Just because Apple couldn’t put anything faster than a G4 in its laptop chassis doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a next-gen laptop built around PowerPC.
  4. This tweet. The secret to surviving COVID-19 is good framing, and Gretchen Goldman, PhD, the research director at the Center for Science and Democracy, made that point in the most effective way possible—by simply showing off the controlled chaos of her living room, where (when she’s not working or appearing as a panelist on CNN) she’s a mom. May we all be so brave as to allow for such vulnerability at this weird moment.
  5. This third-party filter for the AeroPress. As you may or may not be aware of, I’m a bit of a coffee obsessive. (But never hot, always cold. Even in the winter.) I’ve written at least one ode to coffee shop culture over the years, and I literally met my wife while she was working in a coffee shop. I’ve written some of my best pieces in coffee shops. So the pandemic has been really tough for me from the perspective that I can’t do one of my favorite things. But at least I can still make coffee, and one thing that has made that a lot easier is this valve for the Aeropress, which prevents the coffee from dripping out and creates a more heavily filtered result. (Also, for fans of cold brew that aren’t fans of the time it takes to make, you may appreciate this instant cold brew technique I’ve been using.)

“If it can be on YouTube, it can’t be on Quibi.”

— A saying Jeffrey Katzenberg is known to throw around about his streaming network Quibi, which has failed to make a splash despite lots of money being thrown at it. This mindset reflects what’s wrong with mainstream content gatekeepers significantly better than anything else I can write. May Katzenberg be forced to grovel to Mr. Beast for content in a year.

My favorite new YouTuber shows why the upcoming G4 reboot (the cable one, not the Apple one) is unnecessary

One thing that you may have deduced over the years is that I watch a lot of YouTube, in part because it hits a cultural niche that mainstream entertainment has basically never done justice: Shows about technology.

Technology is something where you can’t do halfway. I would argue that part of the reason Radio Shack died was because it tried to hide the breadboards behind the smartphones and headsets. It turns out people actually like seeing raw PCBs!

And as a result, people who do tech the whole way gain my instant respect and admiration.

One such example of this is a tiny channel called Action Retro. When I first found it about two months ago, it had about 500 subscribers. Now it is up to 6,300—a huge surge in a short amount of time—and what is so appealing about it is that it’s simply a guy named Sean who really enjoys vintage Macs and tearing them apart.

I first spotted his channel because he created a video highlighting that it’s possible to install a PowerPC version of Snow Leopard, despite the fact that such an operating system was never officially released.

He screws up half the time, just like any regular user. But he keeps at it, and eventually, he succeeds. His most fascinating project so far is his attempt to restore a heavily modified Mac SE to its owner’s bizarre specifications.

Essentially, Sean is taking on a computer the way Bob Vila would take on a master bath.

This is the kind of thing that works well on YouTube. But it’s also the kind of thing that Jeffrey Katzenberg would rather be caught dead than being associated with.

The mindset of the Quibi founder has largely been the key reason why so many attempts at bringing technology coverage to television have sucked so terribly.

Of course, there are exceptions. The earliest show about tech I can remember is Computer Chronicles, the PBS show largely hosted by Stewart Cheifet, which highlighted emerging technologies decades before mainstream journalists had any idea what the heck any of this stuff could do. It had enough of a reputation among serious techies that Cheifet’s longtime cohost was Gary Kildall, the guy who invented the CP/M operating system that MS-DOS so shamelessly ripped off. (The Internet Archive has every episode archived. It’s great.)

Other notably good attempts are out there—CNET’s fairly polished mid-’90s show on the USA Network is worth noting—but really the first cable channel to get technology coverage right was ZDTV, which came along around 1998, and was later renamed TechTV. It wasn’t incredibly polished; it just felt like people in a studio geeking out.

TechTV was too pure and beautiful for this world, and its spirit was killed thanks to a merger with the gaming-focused channel G4. (And TechTV viewers, of course, hated the change.)

The Comcast-owned G4 was flashy, but it wasn’t quite as good—it tried to turn tech coverage into something akin to its contemporary Spike TV, and it leaned hard into gamers—while leaving out people who just love gadgets.

(This is way too harsh, but the line is too good so I can’t waste it: It was like watching a Monster Energy drink become sentient.)

So when G4 finally died off around 2014 or so after spending a few years as a rerun wasteland, I shed no tears. It started a few pretty good careers—Olivia Munn, for one, who I thought was one of the best parts of the derided Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom—but the cast-aside TechTV ultimately felt more valuable to the internet culture as a whole. A network whose alumni started Digg, Revision3, and This Week in Tech? That’s a pretty good legacy! And unlike G4, which gestured toward a young-adult audience, TechTV’s alums actually found it.

It’s strange to consider that, given the whimper that followed G4’s failure, that Comcast would choose to revive the network, but here we are. A younger generation might look back on this network fondly, and I don’t want to take that away from them. But honestly, I feel like it killed something I really liked for ratings, sort of the MTV of tech.

The problem is, we’re in a different world. And the people that would really find G4’s content to be really interesting are absolutely satiated with options for getting technology and gaming content.

Channels like Action Retro are significantly more valuable to techies than a mainstream attempt to “get” tech or gaming culture is, in part because it feels more honest and less orchestrated.

And if you want something highly orchestrated, you have a ton of options there, from MKBHD to iJustine to JerryRigEverything to Linus Tech Tips. These channels are just as polished as anything Comcast can or will come up with, their hosts don’t bury the technical behind high production values, and their hosts actually own their channels and social feeds, so why would they take a pay cut to go elsewhere?

But, additionally, there are people who create amazing technology content on YouTube that would never find a home on a mainstream cable TV network. The 8-Bit Guy, David Murray, has around 1.2 million subscribers, and he talks about things that G4 would never think to talk about, like soldering—and, despite being well out of G4’s target demographic, he does quite well for himself.

Luke Miani, another Apple YouTuber, has made a pretty great channel based largely around helping people buy used Macs. Could you imagine pitching G4 a show about buying used laptops? Perhaps not, but Luke has seen a surge in growth on his channel in the past year; he’s onto something.

One imagines that Comcast is feeling buyer’s remorse because it had a great channel dedicated to technology and gaming and killed it. But in reality, the channel it should be feeling remorse over is TechTV, not G4.

In case they missed it, let me make it clear: Tech YouTube has spent the past 15 years emulating the channel Comcast unceremoniously killed in a merger.

As I wrote the last time I did one of these grab-bag style roundups, we’re in a period of great upheaval and pop culture may be the only thing keeping some of us sane.

In many ways, that’s kind of the promise that I deliver with this thing that I send into your inboxes—that I highlight how, in its own way, everything has cultural roots, and those roots are often more interesting than we give them credit for.

Some of you have been getting these messages from me in your inbox for half a decade at this juncture, and over that time you’ve heard many of my idiosyncratic interests, of which I have many. I’d like to hear about some of yours. If you’re willing to share, here’s a form. Depending on what you share, I might highlight it in a future issue. No guarantees, and who knows how good this will work. I’m just curious to hear about whether you nerd out about something in your life as much as I do about processor architectures.

I know that sounds like a pretty basic ask, but you have to throw the internet a bone sometimes.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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