Today in Tedium: Was life ever normal? Getting back to normal after 2020 was probably an impossible task, something proven by the many nuances of 2021, which started with a fraught political conflict, continued with a whole lot of misinformation, and ended with me adding a new notice on the Tedium contribute page. And as those nuances are largely in the rear-view mirror at this point, that means one thing: It’s last-minute gift guide time! Since 2015, we’ve recommended a whole bunch of random junk to our readers, inspired by the prior year’s content, designated to be perfect gifts for people you barely know. (My wife, Cat, makes seasoned nuts for family and friends. If you’ve ever tried them, you’re most assuredly not on the “people you barely know” list.) One thing we’re doing differently this year: As we no longer run Amazon affiliate links in the email version of newsletter, we’re setting up an Amazon Idea List to feature this year’s many strange items; being straight-up, buying from that list helps us produce more Tedium. (The links will still be there on the web, and we will offer up an equivalent link on eBay for each item if you really want to get risky.) If something on this list strikes your fancy, visit this page and purchase it for your loved ones. Maybe even consider buying all of them and then try to explain that you really got into Tedium this year. We won’t judge. — Ernie @ Tedium
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Look, you may be thinking to yourself, who needs this much WD-40? It’s an excellent tool that was intended to prevent rust on aircraft, but gained a reputation for being capable at doing a whole bunch of other things, especially being an important element of many a handyman’s toolkit. But a dozen cans? Here’s what I’ll say: David Buck wrote an exceedingly fascinating history of the stuff back in November, and I recommend you read that, then consider hoarding WD-40. We’re in a supply-chain crunch, after all.
» Risky eBay alternative: If you think that simply buying a bunch of WD-40 isn’t creative enough, may I suggest this can-shaped radio from the ’80s that, in its package, also includes a can of WD-40? Of the two cans, which do you think is most likely to have rusted?
Do you have a not-so-close friend or family member who has read the Parade columns of Marilyn vos Savant religiously week to week over a multi-year period? (Thank you for keeping newspapers alive, theoretical person.) If so, that loved one may perhaps be familiar with the Monty Hall Problem, a logic problem with which vos Savant upset a lot of people about because she answered the problem correctly. (As Andrew Egan wrote back in October, she did get it right, but not with the wrinkle that Hall can actively skew the contestant.) That said, tough, there may have been a person in your life who will read this book like a pile of old Parade magazines, hiding in a newspaper morgue somewhere, hopefully never seeing the light of day.
» Risky eBay alternative: Does anyone need 10 of the same copy of Parade, featuring an image of Taylor Swift on the cover, from way back in 2010? Maybe it doesn’t seem like a particularly wise purchase, but on the other hand, I own a copy of a press release for Virgin Cola, so who am I to talk?
When I bought a tower fan in the summer months, the goal was to keep myself cool, while ensuring that my cooling method of choice was not so loud and blowy that it overwhelmed me. But something funny happened along the way of this fan becoming a useful part of my home office: It inspired a Tedium piece, after I noticed its remote control contained a hidden, unused button that had no apparent reason to exist. This led to one of my favorite pieces of 2021, on vestigial manufacturing.
» Risky eBay alternative: This is not the design of the Shirt Tales drum kit either I or Josh Groban owned, so I have no idea what might be hiding on the other side of the bass drum, but if you want to gift it to a friend to buy and let me know after the fact, I’d be super-curious!
Nobody ever got fired for buying a Linksys WRT54G wireless router, one of the most popular wireless routers in history and the subject one of our most popular stories in the calendar year 2021. (Odds are that someone got fired for failing to upgrade said router, however.) The router gained a cult following among techies after it became common knowledge that the router’s software relied on an open-source license. For that reason, there are people who still swear by this router today, even though it’s hopelessly out of date at this point, though I would probably recommend this more modern version of the router instead of the old standby.
» Risky eBay alternative: That said, if you do want to buy a WRT54G for your loved one who doesn’t know their Wi-Fi 6 from their Wi-Fi 1, knock yourself out.
What do Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Everything But the Girl, Patty Smyth, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and this random guy from The Voice have in common? All of them have recorded covers of the Tom Waits song “Downtown Train,” a tune that, according to Stewart, “bought Tom Waits a swimming pool.” Whether or not it did, the conflict between Stewart and Seger over this classic song helped inspire the most popular new Tedium piece of 2021, edging out the history of the WRT54G by just over 1,000 pageviews. If you have someone in your life who thinks “Downtown Train” is the best song Stewart ever wrote, it’s never too late to introduce them to Waits’ Rain Dogs, one of the most edgy and experimental albums to indirectly generate a top-5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. “Downtown Train” sticks out like a sore thumb on the album.
» Risky eBay alternative: If you really want to look like you went above and beyond without actually going above and beyond, consider this cassette single of Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train,” dating to 1989.
As a piece of trivia, the 2006 Strokes song “Juicebox,” the first song released by the band after critics truly stopped caring about them (whether fairly or not), is a pretty good one. But given that this is the song that marked the start of the band’s slow decline, it’s actually kind of fitting, in a way, as it’s named after an object that popularized the Tetra-Pak, a type of drink packaging already hugely popular in Europe, within the U.S. (Like The Strokes, European audiences got what they were going for first.) So in the dissonant spirit of the season, buy them a 12-pack of this coconut water, and when they ask you why you thought randomly buying coconut water was a good idea, tell them it’s because you thought they might admire the packaging.
» Risky eBay alternative: As risky eBay alternatives go, I don’t think you can get much better than this carton of water in a juice box, labeled “the package of the future,” apparently given out during Farm Aid II, the aid concert put on by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young. Mind you, the package is made up of a non-recyclable combination of plastic and metal, but hey, credit for trying to support Farm Aid, I guess?
It’s strange that the guy who helped get us addicted to gasoline helped create what, for a time, some saw as a viable alternative, in the form of easy-to-manufacture charcoal. Yes, while Kingsford may be on the name of the charcoal briquettes used the world over, the truth of the matter is, Henry Ford set up the circumstances for that innovation to go mainstream. When you give this gift to your loved one, be sure to tell them this fascinating story from our piece about it: There was a time when some thought it was a cool idea to use charcoal to get their cars started. This was an especially popular idea in Europe around the time of World War II, though it never reached its true potential in part because starting a car with charcoal was a total pain in the ass. Anyway, even though it’s December, you never know when someone you love needs to stock up on charcoal.
» Risky eBay alternative: Those empty vintage charcoal bags, which we mentioned in the initial piece, can still be found on eBay, looking for someone to buy them. Maybe it’s you. Maybe someone you know collects vintage charcoal briquette bag designs.
You know who had a pretty big year? I’ll give you a second, but if you said Sparks, you deserve a prize. As David pointed out earlier this year, the world was finally ready to celebrate the long-active Mael brothers, the subject of an Edgar Wright documentary and the primary creative forces behind a Golden Globe-nominated movie musical. (Also, unrelatedly, having a big year? Vivaldi.)
» Risky eBay alternative: If you’re in the narrow category of having enough money that you can spend infinite amounts of it on just about anything and have a prominent Sparks fan in your life, consider this vintage poster. Jeff Bezos, whose service is an effective way to access both The Sparks Brothers and Annette, may fit in this category!
History, when described at a basic level, is flat, and I’d like to think that when Tedium covers some topics, it spends some of its time unflattening those topics, so that context that is missing is added in after the fact. And one piece of context I’m particularly proud of uncovering earlier this year is evidence that the whiteboard existed decades before its reported initial creation, dating to the late 1930s rather than the late 1950s. It’s in my piece on the history of whiteboards, a story I always wished got a little more traffic because it did a lot of heavy lifting nobody else was doing. Here’s something that people didn’t know then that you will know now: You can cover your room with whiteboard decals for like $50.
» Risky eBay alternative: If you’re willing to cover the not-insubstantial cost of shipping, this new-old-stock technology package can supposedly make it easier to capture your whiteboard notes using a computer. Or you can just take a picture with your phone. Your choice.
This year, I gave away my best secrets, and yet I’m still somehow writing weird pieces like this history of the turf battle between Eveready and Duracell over who developed the battery power meter first, given that both patented and started selling the product around the same time. If you have a distant relative, who, like me, longs for the time where they could measure their battery life by putting their index finger and their thumb on either side of a battery and pressing down really hard, these Duracell Quantum batteries might be for you. (Don’t tell anyone lithium batteries let you do this on the device itself.)
» Risky eBay alternative: As your loved one is trying to relive the ’90s with measurable effects, make sure they’re doing so in style by using this colorful Duracell Powercheck-branded messenger bag, which promises to make you the coolest kid in school with an Atari Lynx.
This year has been fascinating for me from a Tedium standpoint because it seems like we’ve covered a massive breadth of topics this year, from technology to gadgets to general weirdness.
Sure, 2021 didn’t turn out quite like we hoped, but I like thinking optimistically about what comes next, because, let’s face it … what else are we going to do, anyway?
Sure, we had to deal with all the 2020 stuff, but at least we got to leave the house, get vaccinated, and laugh at people on Twitter who insist on pointing out that premium gas is expensive, especially with inflation.
But even after all this time I’m still learning things. I have tried to get better about the daily frustrations I sometimes deal with as someone who creates stuff publicly on the internet. (MidRange, in case you’re not subscribed, is where I get weird and timely!)
But I like the fact that even after all this time, Tedium has stuck to its weird-ass guns. We read like nothing else on the internet and we kind of make it work.
And we only managed to mention NFTs once this year. (OK, twice, thanks to this link.)
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And if anything sounded at all interesting in this list, may I point you to our Amazon Idea List for this year’s gift guide! It’s full of ideas!