Today in Tedium: Two steps forward, two steps back. The year of 2022 has felt like a return to normalcy in some ways but a retreat from normalcy in others. (On the other hand, were things ever really normal? Let’s just agree to disagree on that one, methinks.) Nonetheless, we are very much at that time of year where Tedium looks back at the year’s numerous issues in a mishmash of art and commerce we call our last-minute holiday gift guide. Last year, we changed things up slightly, in part because of rules that prevent us from running affiliate links from Amazon directly in the newsletter in email form, and as a result we decided to do an Amazon idea list, which you can find here. If you’re reading on the web, the links still work. But as a reminder, this helps us out so we can do great things like support writers and write terrible jokes month after month. However, if that’s not your speed and you just want to read a recap of 2022, this is a pretty good piece for that, too. May your 2022 holidays be a little less painful this year. — Ernie @ Tedium
Our longest-running contributor, Andrew Egan, spent a good chunk of this year chasing down bike messengers (of all stripes) in his pursuit of interesting stories. (It was a good year for him as a writer—he also made an appearance on the History Channel, where he talked at length about erector sets), but along the way, he ended up telling an interesting history about Publishers Clearing House, one of the longest-running sweepstakes companies out there, and the long odds most people will experience when it comes to winning. If you find this tale interesting, of notice from a gift-giving standpoint is a book Andrew mentioned a few times in the piece, Carolyn Wilman’s How To Win Cash, Cars, Trips & More!. As the subtitle of the book so aptly puts it, you can’t win if you don’t enter.
» Risky eBay alternative: You might have managed to miss your shot at winning numerous times in the past, but those old mailers and ads still have some value on (where else?) eBay, a place where you can buy a letter from the Publishers Clearing House that’s been unopened for 28 years and it’s still considered “used.” Also of note are the large number of “prize patrol van” collectible coin banks, which are plentiful on the auction site, along with PCH-branded jewelry.
We had a few pretty successful pieces this year, with one of the early big hits a Valentine’s Day-themed tale about heart-shaped pizza, where it came from, why a couple of mega-chains have taken the concept over, and a discussion of the fact that it’s pretty dark that the first thing you do with a heart-shaped pizza is cut it up and eat it in little pieces. (Who said romance was dead?) Since I trust that you’re already looking for ways to knock the socks off of your significant other in just about two months, may I suggest making your own pizza, with a heart-shaped pan? It can be deep-dish, just like your love for your loved one, and it is a strong sign of preparedness when you buy tools for future holidays before the current one is here.
» Risky eBay alternative: After reading that, you might ask yourself, “Well, I can’t cook, Ernie. What am I supposed to do?” And I might suggest buying a heart-shaped-pizza-shaped-jigsaw-puzzle from the eBay site, because the pizza you would make would probably taste like cardboard anyway.
Fellow longtimer David Buck was on a home-improvement kick this year, and he spent a lot of time pondering the hardware involved in getting home repairs done. Simultaneously, a big trend in 2022 was pressure washers, thanks to the viral success of PowerWash Simulator, the game where you pretend to use a pressure washer in the comfort of your own home. (Hey, no judgment here, it’s been a tough year and cleaning deep-seated fake dirt is just as rewarding as cleaning the real thing sometimes.) David’s piece on pressure washers is about as fascinating a history as you’re likely to get out of an object like this—a story of how prohibition-era steam accidentally proved useful for removing deep-seated stains. For sale in the $100 to $200 range, it’s a tool that might prove appealing to those of you out there who look at a surface and think it’s simply not clean enough.
» Risky eBay alternative: But if buying a pressure washer from Amazon is somehow not authentic enough for you, why not buy a vintage pressure-washer kit made by Jet X, which most assuredly contains dangerous chemicals that have been sitting in a canister for 40 years?
Is there a more fitting cultural event in 2022, the kind of thing that really highlights everything wrong with society and undercuts cultural norms, than the decision by the creators of The Goldbergs to awkwardly replace HR-report-tainted father figure Jeff Garlin with a CGI version of the actor for a couple of seconds? I mean, when everything else in a society feels fake, I guess our TV father figures have to be computer-generated now because they’ve gone absent. (Fittingly, like most of what’s decayed in our culture, it was subtle—a lot of people only noticed it weeks after it happened.) On our end of things, this led to a pretty good piece about other examples of “Fake Shemps” in the history of film, with the most famous example, besides Shemp, probably being Livia Soprano—an appearance that didn’t look very good, but still cost HBO a lot of money to produce. For those who want to celebrate this moment with their loved one and haven’t yet bought an artistic print of Murray Goldberg’s lone moment on the rendering farm, The Goldbergs for some reason have a cookbook that probably contains great ’80s-themed meals for the whole family … well, except for dad, of course, who just needs a few GPU cycles to function.
» Risky eBay alternative: If you have a Fake Shemp enthusiast in your life, you probably can’t do any better than this glossy photo of a Bela Lugosi stand-in from Plan 9 From Outer Space. If you have someone in your life who collects Fake Shemp memorabilia, please send them to me so we can become lifelong friends.
It’s pretty funny that I wrote the piece about failed social networks in June, rather than November, when it would have been a lot more culturally relevant. But hey, sometimes the calendar year generates surprises all year long. From a gift standpoint, now feels like a good time to look back at some of the stories around the formation of prominent social networks—Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter feels like a good one for someone who wants a little irony in their life, as does Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, a title that is funnier now that we’ve seen what said accidental billionaire is spending all of his company’s money on, legs. Also worthy of the list is A Very Public Offering, which tells the story of theGlobe.com, which hit on the Facebook idea while Mark Zuckerberg was still in middle school, but imploded on the stock market.
» Risky eBay alternative: If, like Christina Warren, you collect the merch of failed companies, you might enjoy this postcard featuring branding from the forgotten social site SixDegrees.
I want to give a quick shout-out in this piece to Yuri Litvinenko, who has been working quite hard as a journalist in Russia during a time of turmoil and conflict in 2022. He has been a frequent contributor to Tedium since 2019, when I spotted his personal blog where he wrote about retro technology in English and thought it’d be cool to highlight his great work. He later created his own retro-tech site, 30pin, which was nearly lost in the shuffle of the recent conflict … and I now host for Yuri on my personal server. Even amid all the caught-in-the-middle turmoil, Yuri contributed two pieces this year, including a story on why computers have so many stickers.
» Risky eBay alternative: Honestly, there isn’t one. I just wanted to write about how awesome Yuri is. I realize this is an art-meets-commerce piece, but I honestly just hope he’s holding up during a strange time. He’s a good friend.
For my money, my favorite Tedium piece of 2022 is the tale of the pre-email era of newsletters, particularly the story of Howard Penn Hudson, a journalist who specialized in explaining the ins and outs of the newsletter space to other newsletter creators, especially through his excellent how-to guide, Publishing Newsletters. Hudson was a prominent voice in his day—his death was covered in The Washington Post, and he helped to found an industry association that still maintains a presence to the modern day—and his advice, outside of the vintage layout stuff, largely holds up today. I recommend his book if you can find it.
» Risky eBay alternative: For a fan of vintage stuff, you probably couldn’t get much nerdier than buying them copies of old newsletters on eBay. There’s one for every niche.
In case you ever doubted my online-junk-sleuthing skills, you should know that I was able to put them to good use a couple of months back when I surfaced an online network created by USA Today that even people who work at USA Today didn’t even know existed. One of the things I learned when writing about this piece is that floppy drives are somewhat sensitive, so it might be good to back up the disks before using them. So if you have a vintage computer hound in your life, I recommend buying them a couple IDE-to-SD adapters, which can take the place of a hard drive in an old computer and even moved over to a modern machine that is capable of handling the stored data through emulation. Plus, unlike CompactFlash, you can actually still find SD card readers on reasonably modern devices. You never know when that old floppy drive is going to eat a disk, so in the words of an unsigned postcard I got yesterday, stay vigilant.
» Risky eBay alternative: If you have a vintage software enthusiast in your life who want a copy of this thing, yes, there are a couple on eBay, of varying quality. The boxes are still shrink-wrapped, but don’t be afraid to open them up if you want to experience the nostalgia up close.
Perhaps the greatest gift given to me by a large corporation in 2022 is the existence of the dongle that connects a USB-C iPad to a Lightning Apple Pencil. It’s the ultimate kludge, the kind of thing that only exists because commerce says it must. It seemed to be tailor-made to my interests, which is why I wrote a long piece about dongles inspired by it. In that piece, I got to dig into a long-winded Wikipedia debate around who invented the dongle, and let me just say … dongles remain the ultimate vessel of tedium, though pedantic debates by Wikipedia editors who discredit the work of innovative people rank a close second.
» Risky eBay alternative: It’s a little hard to find a copy of the original version of Wordcraft, the dongle OG, out there, but we were successfully able to find version 6. If you buy this gift, imported directly from the UK, be sure to explain its value to the loved one you just gave this thing to.
Finally, there’s “The Death of the Key Change.” Man, what a piece this was. Written by first-time contributor Chris Dalla Riva, this piece was very popular—in fact, the most popular piece written in 2022 by a wide margin and the third most-successful in the site’s long history. It generated ongoing debate. Chris appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. Substackers came out of the woodwork to write about it. Pocket shoved it in the face of every Firefox user. And then, to top it all off, it became the subject of a Rick Beato video. The piece published just over a month ago, and only now is traffic starting to slow down from it. To put it simply—you folks really love your key changes. And I don’t blame you. To loved ones who enjoyed that piece, I suggest following up on this by diving into music theory (something I hear Beato is good at), or if you just want to learn how to do the key change in “Living’ on a Prayer,” buying a Bon Jovi songbook.
» Risky eBay alternative: In writing this piece, Chris did a lot of research into vintage Billboard charts. Maybe if you had enough copies, you could do the same. Consider buying a lot of them. Sure, it’s old news, and the charts featured are also old, but hey, you might be able to extract some data points out of them.
I guess I should probably close out by spending a few minutes talking about what I think could be best described as an eight-year itch, as we are now nearing the end of year eight of this grand experiment in writing about basically whatever we feel like.
Are things still working after all of this time? Is this still a viable model? I think the answer is yes—people still like reading this, and it still maintains a presence in the mainstream conversation. Hey, it was like three weeks ago that our story found interest from the folks at NPR.
I think though that the two-days-a-week model is a bit limiting in terms of our ambitions, given that nearly every other newsletter of this depth publishes weekly, and the email space is significantly busier than it was when we started.
My idea, long-term, is to take the time spent on the second newsletter and put it into bigger projects, such as collaborations with other writers and creators under the Tedium brand, as well as bringing back the zine as a regular product, probably quarterly. We did a recent pop-up newsletter on MidRange that was well-received, and I think there is an opportunity to leverage interesting projects like that with this brand if I can come up with a way to balance the value of what we do with the grind of it all, so the creative output is at its strongest and that grind is more like buffing the edges rather than sanding them off.
I would also like to figure out a way to make this less predicated on sponsorships and advertising, while still reaching the ultimate goal of making everything we build freely accessible online. So yes, I’m thinking about a paywall of sorts, but in a way that doesn’t just lock history behind a key or leave people out. I always hated when sites do that, which is why I never got into the Substack thing, but I think there’s a way to add value for those who really love reading Tedium without taking it away from the average reader.
I’m still nailing down the details of what, exactly, this looks like, but in my deep-seated interest in making sure I’m not shaking up the apple tree unexpectedly, I figured I’d raise the question to you, my longtime reader. Feel free to reply to this. Tell us how our driving is.
And may you have a great art-meets-commerce holiday season.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And if anything sounded at all interesting in this list, check out our Amazon Idea List for this year’s gift guide; maybe you’ll somehow get inspired?
P.S.: We have now added Mastodon share buttons to our website and newsletter. May they prove helpful as you share content outside of a corporate network.