Today in Tedium: Throughout 2021, Tedium has covered a variety of stories with all sorts of weird angles. Like your crankiest uncle, I’ve fired off numerous “letters to the editor” (emails to Ernie) after reading a Tedium article and thinking there was something left out. Join me as I expand these letters into several short takes on jet-age photography, the vestigial properties of the Nintendo 2DS, the metadata of novelty songs, and a little family history. — Michael @ Tedium
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Photography in the Jet Age
In November, Ernie wrote about the long history of sending news photographs over literal wires. A great book that I picked up last year, Vanessa R. Schwartz’s Jet Age Aesthetic, alerted me to a different mash-up of photography and fast-moving technology: the jet plane and the color news photo.
Color photography was a staple of glossy American magazines from the 1950s, especially Life. Advertisers led the way. The typical issue of Life from the 1950s still had most news photos printed in cheaper black and white. In contrast, ads like this strange combination of lemon Jell-o and tomato sauce were in glorious color.
That’s not to say all news and entertainment was in black and white. Some “evergreen” stories that wouldn’t get stale in the six weeks it took to print in color got the color treatment. One such story from the same issue of Life with the Jell-O ad was Part IV of Lincoln Barnett’s “The World We Live In.” This feature on the Earth’s skies and seas included some spectacular color photos of clouds.
(This six-week delay for color printing has not entirely gone away. My local paper, the Seattle Times, still finalizes the Pacific NW Magazine insert a month and a half ahead of time before stashing it in between the Sunday coupons.)
For certain news events, Life’s editors would make an exception and rush out color photojournalism. Schwartz’s book documents how the magazine pulled this off for the June 2, 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
This event is often seen as a watershed for television since it was the first coronation broadcast live. But the TV audience of 1953 was still modest. The best TVs available had small screens capable only of displaying in black and white. And TV producers were still figuring out live coverage. Life’s writers gleefully pointed out the many screw-ups in the coronation broadcast. Magazines, therefore, would be most Americans’ first chance to see the queen in high-resolution color.
But because the coronation was in England, getting photos printed for an American magazine presented a huge logistical challenge.
The June 8, 1953 issue of Life contained a message from publisher Andrew Heiskell on how the magazine was reserving “space on 42 different flights [for] 90,000 pounds of printed color pages” in a bold attempt to print a color cover story. Given the many risks involved, Heiskell admitted, “at this point, your guess is as good as ours as to what kind of Coronation story you will see in LIFE next week.”
A subsequent feature titled “How a Record Was Set in Color Printing” explains how the staff at Life succeeded in getting a color feature out. Using special Ektachrome color film (faster to print and more durable for the harrowing plane journey), Life’s photojournalists rushed the shots of the coronation from London on the era’s new jet planes. Although a refueling stop at Gander, Newfoundland was still necessary, jet travel cut down transit enough to get the photos to the US and distribute them in time for printing. As one admiring Life reader later wrote in, “They just had to come through. It wouldn’t have been Life if they hadn’t.”
These days, photojournalists and filmmakers typically send shots digitally. But sometimes physically transporting media is still necessary. While under house arrest, Iranian director Jafar Panahi famously smuggled his documentary This Is Not a Film out of the country in a flash drive hidden in a cake.
The Vestigial Tech of the Nintendo 2DS
Earlier this year, Ernie defined Vestigial tech as technology with “unusual, unnecessary, or unused hidden elements.” An example would be a remote control with an asymmetrical button layout because plastic is covering up a button that a TV doesn’t support.
My favorite vestigial tech is the screen on the Nintendo 2DS.
Since the Game Boy Advance SP, most of Nintendo’s portables adopted a foldable clamshell design. The Nintendo DS expanded on that with screens on opposite sides of the clamshell.
This changed with the 2DS. As the name implies, the system revision’s biggest difference from the 3DS was removing the 3D functionality. But the 2DS also dropped the hinge. Both screens are always visible.
The reason Nintendo did this was to take advantage of commodity smartphone screens. If you put your smartphone next to a 3DS, the smartphone will be about as tall as the 2DS. Realizing this, the engineers at Nintendo found that it was cheaper to put one big touchscreen into the 2DS and make it appear like two screens by adding a plastic divider. This means that under the hood, the 2DS has small slivers of unused screen. And the top “screen” is also touch capable, but that feature has been disabled because the original 3DS only supported touch on the bottom.
I first learned about this in a US Gamer article by Jeremy Parish, host of the long-running Retronauts podcast. In that 2013 article, Jeremy speculates that we’ll soon see modders re-enabling the touchscreen capability to the top screen of the 2DS. 8 years later, I couldn’t find anyone who has succeeded in doing this.
What modders have done, however, is to go in the opposite direction and create a “Game Boy Macro.” This is Nintendo DS with the top screen taken off that’s still capable of playing GBA games in backward compatibility mode. Why would you want to do this? Who cares! It exemplifies the type of lovingly “dumb” uses of game hardware explored in depth on the YouTube channel Stop Skeletons From Fighting.
How I Research Stuff
I love learning the particulars of how people work. So, Ernie’s piece on how he researches material for Tedium was particularly fascinating.
As someone who often does extensive research in writing quizbowl questions or the particulars of the 1980s coin-op scene in bars, I thought I’d share a few research techniques not covered in Ernie’s article.
One neat resource I found this year for exploring more early-web content is Marginalia, a search engine that prioritizes text-only content. This usually isn’t my first option when researching a topic, but it’s a great way to filter out the low-value SEO content that often pollutes Google searches.
The biggest secret to getting access to interesting research databases not mentioned in Ernie’s essay is to find a friend in college and do a Netflix-style password sharing deal. The typical university library will have access to a ton of paywalled content. One of my favorite such databases is ArtStor, JStor’s visual cousin. It’s the best place for extremely high-resolution art.
Another is Oxford Scholarship Online. It has plaintext entries from many of the books published by Oxford University Press. I like these because they’re easy to convert to machine-read audiobooks via something like Google’s WaveNet text-to-speech API. Yes, having a machine read a book to you is a worse experience than a professional actor. But I have way more time to listen to content than to read it.
On that note, let me make a confession. Ernie is justly proud of the custom design of Tedium. It was even featured on Product Hunt. But I’ve got a lot of stuff to read each week. I don’t always have 15 minutes each Wednesday and Friday to read Tedium when it arrives. For several years, I’ve used Pocket, a read-it-later service to store interesting content from the internet and get around paywalls. I’m sure Ernie already didn’t love converting a lovingly designed Tedium piece into Pocket’s native format.
But what’s surely against the spirit of Tedium is what I’ve done since the most recent redesign. Something in Pocket’s parsing logic broke, meaning I could no longer directly save Tedium posts. My workaround for this and other Pocket-unfriendly websites is to scrape the site for the plain text, upload it to my otherwise defunct home page, and then save that version in Pocket. On top of that, I usually then take advantage of Pocket’s “listen to this article” feature to “read” it. And so I’ve had a machine read to me a lot of this year’s Tedium content.
It’s like a Facebook version of Tedium, except without the newsfeed ads.
Kids Radio, Novelty Songs, and the Weird World of Napster Metadata
Regular readers of Tedium will have read much about novelty songs. Just this year, David Buck chronicled the novelty songs of Harry Belafonte and David’s own unsuccessful attempt to record a breakout novelty hit. I could use this space to dig up some of my considerably more cringeworthy efforts that made heavy use of Newgrounds’ best punk rock software. But rather than ruin my reputation forever, I wanted to highlight a public radio program that introduced me to many novelty classics.
That program was Kids Corner on Philadelphia’s world-class public radio station WXPN. This program was a local spin-off of the nationally syndicated Kids America, which was cancelled on Christmas Eve 1987 (yikes!). Host Kathy O’Connell retooled the show for WXPN. It’s still going strong despite the rise and fall of Radio Disney.
I first tuned in to its 7 PM airings in 1995. I remember liking the entire show, including the educational and call-in advice sections. I even won a book in a trivia contest. But what really sticks with me 25 years later are the novelty songs.
The show introduced me to classics like “Star Trekkin’”, the biggest hit for The Firm. As a slightly older teen, I’d fire up Napster and try to track these songs down.
Many of these Napster-obtained novelty songs had hilariously incorrect metadata. Odds were that if it was a novelty song, it would be credited to Weird Al or, less commonly, Adam Sandler.
This was such a widespread phenomenon that there’s an entire Napster Comedy Wiki documenting this anything-goes era of song parodies and fake diss tracks. I had completely forgotten about the Star Wars Gangsta Rap, having merged that in my mind with the breakout early hit for Epic Rap Battles of History. (Side note: The Tony Hawk vs. Wayne Gretzky ERB has the fewest views on the channel. It’s also the best by a wide margin. Fight me.)
When your great-grandfather’s small business shows up in a Tedium piece
The most surreal experience reading Tedium this year was when I came across this passage in Ernie’s article on the rise of braided nylon in charging cables.
The first example I can find of nylon being used in cable-style settings is in the form of a 1950 patent filing by Howard J. Shive of the Bentley-Harris Manufacturing Company. As the patent filing makes clear, this was not an easy thing that the company was trying to do:
The application of a continuous coating to a fabric tubing, in the manufacture of electrical insulation material, presents many problems. In the first place, the coating must be of uniform thickness throughout the length and periphery of the product. Thin areas exposing the underlying fabric tubular sleeving, as well as thick and uneven portions due to the running of the coating solution, cannot be tolerated. Moreover, it is often necessary to employ a heat stabilizing to prevent deterioration of the coating when equipment containing the insulating material becomes heated in assembly or operation. It has been found that due to the tendency of such a stabilizing agent to settle out from a vinyl resin Solution, it is a very difficult matter to incorporate the desired amount of stabilizing agent in the coating by using such a solution.
Astute readers may have noticed that I share a surname with Bentley in the Bentley-Harris Manufacturing Company. This is because the company was co-founded by my great-grandfather, William H. Bentley, Sr.
(As far as I’m aware, we’re unrelated to the much more famous line of Bentleys that founded the luxury car brand. We’re also not related to Snowflake Bentley, the most famous snowflake photographer until Nathan Myrhvold went all Modernist Cuisine on them.)
This company never had more than a few hundred employees, so it came as a shock to see it inadvertently dug up by Ernie. In the spirit of adding a personal connection to your writing, let me conclude with a potted history of Bentley-Harris as it intersects with many Tedium themes.
Ironically, the research techniques I mentioned above were not very helpful in finding information about Bentley-Harris. There just isn’t very much about the company’s early history on the internet. However, talking to some of my relatives I’ve learned that they indeed were known for sleeving and sheathing. The most recognizable product they made was a heat-resistant gasket for self-cleaning ovens. You may not know it by name, but chances are your oven has a ring on the door like this:
My dad claims that Bentley-Harris also manufactured parts for the lifeline used by NASA astronauts when conducting spacewalks. I can’t find anything to back this up, but it’s neat if true.
I was born after the company was sold to Federal-Mogul, a firm that mainly makes auto-parts. Bentley-Harris lives on as a niche B2B brand under Tenneco Systems Protection. They’re still known for the type of “sleeving and shielding solutions” highlighted in that braided nylon patent.
As I searched for more information on the company and thought about how I might end this piece, I was reminded that my grandfather, who sold the company to Federal-Mogul and died when I was young, wrote regular editorials for IEEE’s Electrical Insulation Magazine. This was a technical journal he founded after “retiring from the sleeving business.”
His musings on the quest for universal magnet wire at “Coil Winding ‘86” is perhaps not much different than this very essay summarizing a years’ worth of work—it even has the same self-deprecating asides. I’d like to thank Ernie for this unintentional shoutout that got me motivated to dig through this virtual archive. Here’s to another great year for Tedium in 2022!
Finally, in the spirit of April’s Tedium grab bag, let me conclude with my own grab bag of short thoughts and additions to Tedium’s 2021 corpus.
As an 11-year-old going online for the first time, I found the volunteer moderators on AOL’s keyword NOA (for Nintendo of America) to be the coolest people in the world. My mind was also blown when someone told me about the easter egg of clicking on Diddy Kong’s hat to access the secret Treehouse section of Nintendo’s AOL presence. Nintendo’s shuttering of their AOL portal in favor of a site on the world wide web still pains me. I’ve recently bought some “Tour Guides” and “Strategy Guides” on AOL gaming to see what I can dig up from this era.
Maybe you’ll see the results of this research in your inbox next year.
Thanks again to Michael for taking a second look at some of our pieces from the calendar year 2021. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!