Obsolete Skills

Robert Scoble came up with the idea in a recent blog post to make a list of ‘obsolete skills.’ He describes these skills as things we used to know that no longer are very useful to us, and provided a few examples including:

* Dialing a rotary phone
* Putting a needle on a vinyl record
* Changing tracks on an eight-track tape
* Shorthand
* Using a slide rule
* Use a product or service before doing a blog post?
* Optimizing 640K-worth of memory
* Using Wikitext?
* Refilling a fountain pen
* Operating a dictaphone
* Using the eraser ribbon on a typewriter

The community has started to create a much larger list of these obsolete skills, check out the full A-Z list. Feel free to contribute more if you can, and if you have the time, please make a page with a short description of the skill.

Obsolete Skills

I drove to Chicago for an interview a few weeks ago and just before I got there a slow, steady snowstorm started. It’s freaky enough on the tollway, even in good weather, but in a snowstorm it’s a nightmare. One reason it’s so difficult is that windshield wipers just can’t keep up with the snow and slush.

You have to pick just the right speed, and even then the windshield goes dark periodically, obscured by buckets of gray muck thrown up by the semis. And all of this is happening at 50 miles an hour or more, although step by step the traffic was slowing down to 30 or 40 miles an hour.

In the midst of all of this I notice that my windshield wiper fluid had run out. This means that each time the windshield fills with the gray muck I can’t wash it off. Instead, the muck smears like thick mud. Now I am peering franticly through dark smears on the windshield, barely able to see to drive.

I’ve got to get off– that in itself is no easy matter on the tollway– and get some water. I make the exit and, after three or four tries, realize that the convenience stores that sell gas have air hoses but not water. It seems like such a simple thing: water. But it’s not available.

I briefly considered bottled water and then, at the last moment, looked up to see the familiar blue jugs of fluid. It had been so long since I even opened the hood of my truck, much less fill up the windshield wiper fluid– that I had completely forgotten what I needed to do!

It seems like a stupid mistake but, on reflection, it makes perfect sense. I bought my truck about six years ago on an extended warranty that required– and paid for– regular service at the dealer. They were wonderfully efficient, maintaining and filling every possible fluid and oil. No news was good news.

I thought about all of this when I found out about the obscure skills website, which lists odd little abilities many of us used to rely on regularly. I used to change and set the spark plugs in my car, and I’ve done brake jobs and replaced water pumps. No more.

Partly, of course, because I’m older and occupied with other things. Whatever the reason, I’m not sure how sentimental I can be about these changes. On the one hand, I don’t like ‘sealed box’ technologies. On the other, it just seems like a kind of hobby I once loved.

Sometimes, too, even an oil change could be a nightmare; it wasn’t always as easy as it sounds. I can remember laying on the driveway in the heat of the Texas summer, struggling to turn that odd wrench that we used for oil filters. It was irritating and messy. It’s not the technology we miss, I think, it’s something else.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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