Metatalktail Hour: Obsolete Technology November 2, 2019 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Good Saturday evening, MetaFilter! This week, dhruva wants to know: "What obsolete technology did you get really good at? Tell us about some mad skillz that you can't use anymore."

As always, this is a conversation starter, not limiter, so tell us everything that's up with you! And as always, send me ideas for future MetaTalkTails!
posted by Eyebrows McGee to MetaFilter-Related at 7:57 AM (149 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

I was quite good at skinning ICQ and Winamp, due to spending a lot of my teenaged years in fandom at a time when such things were A Thing. ICQ was the tricker of the two, if memory serves as it had more fiddly bits to incorporate into the skin.

We’re being hammered by wind and rain today (two days worth of rain in one, I think) and my neighbour had an unannounced massive party last night, which as we are a terrace meant sleeping in the spare room. Now there are NO cartridges in the street outside. Ugh.

On the other hand, South Africa 🇿🇦 won the Ruby World Cup (also with first black captain), bringing us equal with NZ. 🍾 And I have put some more art up on the walls.The fact that most of it is on the shared wall with party!neighbour's bedroom was a very happy coincidence. 🔨🔨🔨
posted by halcyonday at 8:19 AM on November 2 [9 favorites]


It's not that I can't use them any more so much as that I just don't have the opportunity to, but hand drafting and AutoCAD are pretty much extinct in my industry now, and I guess even physical model making to a certain extent. AutoCAD is still used by some building engineering disciplines (civil engineering it seems like for the most part), but everybody else uses Revit. Luckily I also have some decent Revit skills.
posted by LionIndex at 8:21 AM on November 2 [5 favorites]


Editing magnetic audio tape.

I mean, I don't know if I had MAD skillz - there are stories out there of folks editing like single notes out of multi-track recordings, which means actually cutting teeny-tiny little snippets out of the very center of a specific spot on the tape - but I definitely had graded projects in school where I had to edit master stereo recordings to combine different takes of a recording into a seamless-sounding whole, and I did very occasionally use those skills in my first job as a recording studio engineer.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:28 AM on November 2 [21 favorites]


Editing autoexec.bat and config.sys to free memory for games
posted by hat_eater at 8:30 AM on November 2 [29 favorites]


I know this sort of isn't a technology- but letter writing. Luckily there's the card club so I can use those skills again!

Holy shit the weather went crazy this week. 95 MPH wind gusts! WELP. No corn for me I guess! Also lost quite a few herbs to the wind burn. I Gerry rigged another strawberry bowl which I filled with quinalts this time. I'm just going for chill everbearing types so I can have snacks. Intensive strawberry growing is a pain. One more Brassica bed is in! This one has some kale and collards and Kohlrabi. And possibly soon some Tatsoi/Koji which I just brought home from work yesterday. (strokes greens- my precious...) And I replaced my Yerba Buena because the wind killed it. (Well no I killed it by putting it in terra-cotta. Long story.) My little spinaches are doing shitty- they're leaf-miner ed to all hell. I have to do some research on that score. Hope everyone is doing well!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:41 AM on November 2 [7 favorites]


So when I was much younger I first volunteered but then eventually freelanced my services as a studio assistant. I worked in foundries and with stone cutters, mostly as brute force and muscle, occasionally as a fabricator in those instances. But I worked with potters, painters, and frankly, most of the work I got came from museums and collectors and involved moving art or installing large sculptures. Not all that impressive, really. Very difficult, but not particularly creative.

But for a while, I specialized in fine art printmaking, and I was good at almost every process. I had an ex who was a printmaker and I assisted her quite a bit, and she taught me everything I know about printmaking. She taught me letterpress, how to do stone and plate lithography, etching, woodcuts, monoprints, all of the old ways we used to print. And with that experience, I also got to work at a commercial fine art press and got to assist a lot of really amazing artists like Chuck Close, William Wegman, Sam Gillium, and Lynda Benglis. It was an honor to pull prints for these people, and they created some really great work. And while I haven't used those skills or knowledge in a really long time, I feel like most of it would come back. All that useless knowledge about acids and resists, and paper tooth and grain, copper, steel, and limestone, and not any limestone, just one quarry in the world.

If it all goes to hell and survivors need posters or pamphlets, perhaps I'll put it to use again, but I think my print pulling days are over.
posted by Stanczyk at 8:46 AM on November 2 [13 favorites]


Editing magnetic audio tape.

Editing magnetic tape was something I was pretty good at, too. Similarly, editing on film. I took film classes as a teenager at a local university, and editing was my favorite. AVID and stuff existed at the time, but we all learned on film (I think at the time, the pros still used AVID to make the rough cut, then exported time codes for cutting the master negative). I had a lot of fun cutting out individual shots from the working positive, syncing audio from tape with a grease pen, and hanging the synced shots from a rack (with the cotton bag underneath, of course). We recorded our music track directly from CD onto half-inch tape using a 6-foot tall reel-to-reel machine, and then spliced that as needed. I am so so grateful that I got to do that, because it was kind of a dream come true for me, and the technology is basically gone now.

I worked at video stores for years, and for one thing, pretty much every video store-specific skill is obsolete. But my favorite was fixing VCRs and tapes. Sometimes a customer would bring in a VCR with a stuck tape, and I'd open up the back so I could fish it out. Usually the tape had gotten caught on one of the spools. Whether I had to fish it out of a machine, or whether it had just broken cleanly on its own (rentals did wear out), I could fix a VHS tape with a little splicer block we had. There was a little knife that came down and cut the tape, so you could cut out the mangled section, and then you'd peel a little sticker off a sheet, very shiny and metallic, and VERY sticky, and use that to tape the two ends back together. Now I can't remember which side it needed to be on (the side that touched the tape head, or the other side), but I don't know if it even mattered all that much.

I was basically the last employee who learned how to do this. Most of my coworkers didn't know how it do it. It was just me, my boss, and a couple people who had been working there for many years. So I like to think I was the last generation of video store clerks who knew how to fix a VHS tape.

I also freed stuck DVDs in a similar way, but that was less involved and less exciting. Every so often we'd set aside a scratched DVD to send to the main office, where they had a buffing machine. Anyway, when I started working there, pretty much all new releases came out on VHS. By the time I stopped working there, none of them did. The store finally closed a few years ago, one of the last of its kind, and I think the last in the DC area. I started going there when I moved to the area as a kid, and I worked there into my early 20s. RIP Potomac Video on Connecticut, thanks for the memories.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:48 AM on November 2 [19 favorites]


In the 1990s, I was a master of converting multilingual text from standard to standard, from platform to platform (Macs, of course, always did things a little differently).

Then Unicode, utf-8, etc came along and most people didn't need that skill anymore.
posted by gimonca at 9:16 AM on November 2 [4 favorites]


Oh yeah, I also worked at a photo lab, Motophoto in Dupont Circle, for you DC locals. That is also some pretty obsolete technology. At the time, digital photography wasn't much of a thing yet, because the cameras were still pretty terrible, if I'm honest (they were slow and clunky, and the resolution was awful). So most of our time was spent developing film of various formats. We had a developer machine that could handle C-41 film, so we could process color and black-and-white film onsite. Kodachrome and slide film had to be sent out to another lab.

The developer was a pretty big machine with several tanks full of the various chemicals needed to process film, constantly churning and recirculating. We'd have to use a changing bag (a black bag we could stick our arms into to keep light from hitting the film) to open the film canister and load it onto a spool, then we'd insert that into the machine and rollers would automatically feed it from one tank to the next. We could set some film developing and come back a few minutes later to finished negatives. I think the one tricky thing was that we had to get it out of the machine before it had sat in water for too long, or something like that.

Although, now that I think about it, it too used to jam like a VCR occasionally. Except if this jammed, the film would be in vats of various chemicals, acid, etc. Not fun to fix. You could lose the customer's film (with no backups) if you didn't fix it quickly enough, and it certainly wasn't pleasant to open up.

This machine was ludicrously expensive, by the way. We had to clean it every night, and it was always a little stressful. One time I nearly dropped a roller, and my boss freaked out because it was a $1000 part. Yikes.

Anyway, once negatives were developed, we'd take them over to the printer, where we could do color correction and everything. It was another huge and extremely expensive machine, highly specialized, with a godawful user interface. Sort of like a computer built into a large and expensive case with a film reader and stuff, but slow and awkward to use. I won't go into how we handled all the different formats (from medium-format down to crappy Advantix film), but it was at least versatile in that regard.

We tended to get a lot of nude photographers. Which, whatever. Just every so often it could be disconcerting to look up and see someone's shots of group sex. One time a guy came in and said "um, is it OK if there's some... explicit sexual content?" And we were like, sure, whatever. I was the one doing the printing that day, and everything was fine, just some shots of a gay cruise. It was Advantix film, so it was a mix of 4x6 and 3x5 shots of like the boat and people dancing and stuff. Then out of left field, dang, a panoramic shot of a giant cock with jizz everywhere. The person doing the QC was like "I don't see any explicit sexual... oh."

Sometimes I miss that job.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:23 AM on November 2 [19 favorites]


Wow, that brought back memories. I loved working in a photo lab. I found it oddly satisfying to use the film leader retriever in the bag. It felt like surgery. I was extracting memories from this little canister. It was also a very small, privately owned lab with a lot of downtime, and I had (have) a really active imagination...
posted by Ruki at 9:45 AM on November 2 [6 favorites]


Less than 2 years ago I became proficient in MUMPS programming. Not sure this is "obsolete", more like "god I wish it was obsolete."
posted by Tehhund at 9:53 AM on November 2 [16 favorites]


In the 80s I prepared all the budgets for a medium-sized company on green accounting paper; spreadsheets had not been invented. I learned to add up rows and columns using a desktop calculator, three-finger touch-typing the figures without looking at the machine. That skill translated nicely to spreadsheet data entry on a desktop computer keyboard with a number pad, but now I work exclusively on a laptop and still find it annoying to have to enter numbers using the main keyboard. I suppose I could get a peripheral number keypad but I don't do enough numbers work anymore to justify it.
posted by beagle at 10:02 AM on November 2 [8 favorites]


In the same vein of "it still works, but feels obsolete": I'm really good at starting campfires with just natural materials. Even at a summer camp where every counselor prided themself on being good at making fires, I had a reputation as the person who could always get one going strong. Sometimes we'd use firestarters that we made by soaking cotton balls in petroleum jelly and storing them in old film canisters, but it was understood that it was a convenience, not a necessity, and we gave ourselves a pass since we made them ourselves. There's an art to stacking logs to get the right combination of airflow and limited heat loss, but the real trick is to tirelessly gather tinder and kindling then blow enough (but not too much!) air into the embers until your face is melting and you're ready to pass out. Apparently I'm the kind of person who will hyper focus on that sort of thing.

It's hardly a survival skill anymore since we have central heating, and with 2 kids too young to care much about campfires it seems it's not much of an entertainment skill either. I keep telling myself that when the kids are older we'll have lots of time for campfires and my skills will matter again, but right now it's kind of hard to believe.
posted by Tehhund at 10:09 AM on November 2 [16 favorites]


Does hand knitting count? Because I'm pretty good at that, but I'm not going to pretend it's not something that's purely a hobby at this point, either.
posted by sciatrix at 10:11 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't say "mad skillz", but I was pretty adept at starting flooded cars. Probably because I was also good at flooding them in the first place.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 10:13 AM on November 2 [8 favorites]


I used to be a proofreader, back in the days when we used blue and red pencils on paper galleys and had a rigid system of editor’s marks. Now it’s all done online. I miss the old way. It always gave me that good office-supply/back-to-school feeling—the fresh new stacks of paper, the sharpening of the pencils, the reference books. Desk work has never been thrilling but it did used to have much more sensory variety. Now every single project involves your exact same plastic keyboard and monitor.
posted by HotToddy at 10:15 AM on November 2 [26 favorites]


Orienteering when I was in my teens and field work later made me really good with a map and compass.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:16 AM on November 2 [5 favorites]


Hand drafting skills, like doing the letraset for a poster or plotting all the points and a smooth curve for a graph; doing presentations with overhead projector transparencies; being good at freehand scripts or cutting clean lines. Like HotToddy says, more sensory variety.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:21 AM on November 2 [8 favorites]


Building Hypercard stacks.

I really miss HyperCard.
posted by kristi at 10:51 AM on November 2 [17 favorites]


But I’m glad for this question because now I’m thinking about ways to reintroduce more sensory variety . . .
posted by HotToddy at 10:52 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]


Cold starting cars, back before fuel injection was a thing. Yes, I am from Minnesota.

Programming the VCR.

Making mix tapes.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:58 AM on November 2 [3 favorites]


I was awesome at programming games into TI-85 calculators and much in demand to write games for my friends, before you could transfer them by cable from one to another. I figured out I could make the calculator repeatedly solve a large matrix as a timing measure, so when I wanted it to wait 3 seconds, I'd make it solve the matrix 3 times, which made my games more sophisticated than other people's, which were just input/output. Like I created a sort of whack-a-mole by having the calculator solve the matrix a random number of times between 0 and 10 times, and then pop up in a random hole, and then stay there between 1 and 5 matrix solves, so that the timing was randomized and unpredictable.

I also miss the days of pasting up newspaper pages, especially using the waxer. Now it's all on the computer, which is much easier and more convenient, but I really liked physical paste-up, and then driving the flats to the off-site printing press. Now it just zaps there by internet like everything else!
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 11:05 AM on November 2 [19 favorites]


I flash back to diligently filling in one pixel at a time in Photoshop to craft cute 88x31 website buttons during my adolescent study breaks
posted by rather be jorting at 12:17 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


dBase III programming. I managed to create a couple of fairly complex business applications I'm still proud of, especially since I had no formal training - I just read tons of books and magazine (remember those?) articles and figured things out as I went along. I was intrigued by the new "object-oriented programming" concepts, but a job change got me of the programming side of IT about that time and that was that. Now, 20-some years later, my current job has me dabbling in SQL but just in an incidental and superficial way, not the main part of my duties. Part of me is sort of inerested in getting back into Proper Coding, but now there's too much competition and too many languages under the bridge for me to be able to catch up in any meaningful or profitable way.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:35 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


I too had mad skilz at magnetic analog tape editing, especially the 1/2 inch mixes that had to have the tiniest of edits to make them right. I also was way into making mix tapes on cassettes and I could clean and align cassette playback and record heads like nobody's business.

I also used to be a pretty good baker, turning out homemade bread, cinnamon rolls, cookies and pies, but changing diets among family members has pretty much eliminated any need for baked goods so I've kind of lost acuity on baking techniques.
posted by Lynsey at 12:45 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


Give me a light table, waxer, x-acto knife, line tape, and some pages of copy and I can paste up camera-ready newspaper pages.

It was like putting together a puzzle.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:49 PM on November 2 [28 favorites]


Back in the early '70s, when I was first in college, I had a profitable side hustle typing papers for students--as in, on a typewriter (and a glorious day it was when I got a secondhand Selectric with the amazing type ball.) We all still use keyboards, sure, but in those days you had to be able to keep up 80+ WPM without errors (because a typo meant you had to stop and futz around with the strip of Ko-rec-type), and make accurate decisions about word breaks on the fly, and in particular to correctly estimate how much space to leave at the bottom of the page for whatever footnotes were needed. This was critical because if you went too far down with the text, you either had to re-type the entire page, or do a cut (with scissors) and paste (with scotch tape) and go find a copying machine to make a clean copy of the page. It could get especially tricky when the text referencing the footnote was far down on the page, and you still had to fit everything in without going over the margins (a big deal if you were typing dissertations).

A few years later I was working as a secretary in a law firm in San Francisco, and the staff attorneys were prone to suddenly deciding, around 4 pm, that a paragraph must be added to page 37 of a 56-page document that absolutely had to be handed over to Fed Ex by 5 pm. Several of us secretaries would end up spreading the whole thing out on the conference table, frenziedly scissoring and taping and photocopying at top speed.

It was at that job that I encountered my first word processor--a Wang 2200, I believe--and I still recall the salesman giving the demo showing how you could insert a new sentence or paragraph in an existing document, and voila, the whole thing would rewrap and reformat itself, ready to be printed off clean. It was like that moment when the dark clouds break and the dazzling sunbeams of God Almighty shine down on one's head, and a voice whispers This changes everything.
posted by Kat Allison at 12:49 PM on November 2 [40 favorites]


Oh man, VCRs! I remember taking apart the family VCR to carefully disentangle unspooled tape and spool it back up in the VHS again with a pencil. I also became diligent at VCR programming to make sure I could record shows that aired while I was at school or late night reruns that aired after my bedtime. Visual mixtapes!
posted by rather be jorting at 1:10 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


I fixed my VCR just 5 days ago. What gets me is I'm used to that picture but other, usually younger folk will admit it looks grainy.

But I'm also restoring a 1925 Burroughs Adding Machine and it's 30 pounds is a feat of engineering... thank God for the circuit board.
posted by clavdivs at 1:12 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


By the time I graduated from college in 1992 I was pretty good at WordPerfect 5.1.

OT1H I do still miss RevealCodes for those times I have to futz with Word. OTOH looking back, I shoulda just gone straight to LaTeX.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:16 PM on November 2 [14 favorites]


Visual Basic 6.

Memorizing all the digits for a prepaid card do I could make calls from payphones without cash.

Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.
posted by alasdair at 1:28 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


I was once a professional HyperCard developer!
posted by moonmilk at 1:52 PM on November 2 [11 favorites]


I used to be great at making mix tapes, with all kinds of random bits of sounds between the songs and cool cover art, etc. Playlists are absolutely not the same, damn it. Also all of my arts/thingmaking/ cooking skills are super analog and would fit better in another century/be useful in a postapocalyptic situation, but I’m not sure that counts.)
posted by centrifugal at 1:55 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]


Oh my gosh—yes, actually TYPING on a TYPEWRITER!
In college I made extra money by typing papers for people. I got a lot of business because I was fast and would offer a pretty short turnaround time (great for procrastinators!). I got really good at the footnotes thing.
posted by bookmammal at 1:56 PM on November 2 [7 favorites]


I was a self-taught seamstress. I used to be really really good at it. I made everything from hand-tailored three piece suits to horse blankets. Now I have no need or even desire to sew; even easy mending just sits there for years ... waiting, lurking, plotting.
posted by mightshould at 1:58 PM on November 2 [13 favorites]


I really miss Adobe Pagemaker. I used that quite a bit in high school for yearbook/layouts. And I just miss using that program/tool. I know there are modern versions of that, but there was just something about that specific suite of tools that clicked in my brain. It just made sense.
posted by Fizz at 2:36 PM on November 2 [11 favorites]


I also miss the days of pasting up newspaper pages, especially using the waxer. Now it's all on the computer, which is much easier and more convenient, but I really liked physical paste-up, and then driving the flats to the off-site printing press.

The one thing we did send "electronically" (i.e., on a zip disk!) were any colour separations if we were running colour pages (contingent on an advertiser wanting and paying for colour, which meant in a quarter-fold tabloid layout in a 24-page edition we had colour on pages 1, 4, 12, and 24 IIRC).

The zip disk went in the box along with the flats, and off to the printer it all went.

Then there were those production nights where someone would forget to turn on the waxer ahead of time, so it would bottleneck the final paste up while we waited for it to melt!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:54 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


So my mom is a graphic designer, and she has been since the early 80s, when everything was done by hand. I remember going to her office and seeing all the machines and art supplies and stuff. She taught herself to do everything on a computer by the late 80s - but because she still kept a lot of her old supplies, we had an essentially endless supply of X-Acto blades when I was growing up. In middle school I loved to go through old magazines and cut things out with X-Actos and tape them to my wall - something about the precision and focus required is really meditative for me. Once I started taking art classes in high school I started making art out of those cut-out pieces, and I still make paper collages for fun. And I never edit them on a computer.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:34 PM on November 2 [22 favorites]


Pressing pause on a VCR while recording a show, to excise commercials. Which usually meant I could get 7 "1-hour" shows on a 6-hour tape.
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 3:43 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


showbiz_liz, those collages are badass
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:57 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


I've gotten pretty good at splitting firewood.
posted by bondcliff at 4:05 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


showbiz_liz,those are excellent. I tear out pages from catalogs and magazines and save other paper bits. Might be time to do an artcard swap.
posted by theora55 at 4:11 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


Pressing pause on a VCR while recording a show, to excise commercials.

I had sort of the opposite skill - Rather than actively watching the shows I was recording, I let the VCR record commercials and all; but during playback I learned exactly how long to let fast-forward go during commercial breaks so I could just blip right through to when the show's next segment started. That was a more useful skill for me because I generally didn't record shows to keep but for home-grown time-shifting purposes. I recorded Carson and Letterman (and later Craig Ferguson) so I could go to bed, then watched them later in the week whenever it was convenient for me. By the end of the week I'd watched them all, so I could re-use the same set of tapes the following week, over and over.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:14 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


My most obsolete is skill likely manual graphic design technology ranging from manually setting Letraset and other photographic typesetting media to hand cutting discrete color separations on light tables with Rubylith from keyline art and knowing how to do most of the things we do with desktop publishing and digital design the old school physical media way.

"Copy and paste" actually means something to me besides ctrl-V and ctrl-C. It means taking a source image or camera ready art to a graphic arts camera and shooting it to transparent film or opaque paper to cut up copies to paste into a layout and pasteup board either with adhesive or wax or tapes to compose a graphic to be a further iteration of camera ready art to shoot into more film or paper to generate a clean, print ready design that eliminates all of the cut lines of paper or tape or non-photographic blue pencil layout marks and notes.

The white and black lollipops as icons for "dodge" and "burn" in photoshop also mean something, as these are tools one used in the enlargement and editing stage of taking developed photo negatives to paper prints. The mask tool is stuff like cutting Rubylith or paper/foil masks to over or underexpose photos in specific areas. The crop tool is a pantographic set of right angle rulers that you can set to marked measurements or aspect ratios and cut/crop out a rectilinear graphic or photo.

Even the stroke, pen, and pencil tools in vector and raster design programs have process and physical tool parallels in the real design world.

I haven't used any of the pro grade equipment involved in this in over twenty years. To be honest, I love digital design and the precision of a good vector design program and the flexibility of it all.

But you could walk me into an old school art department blindfolded and I could smell the rapidograph ink, the Rubylith, the acetate or polyester film, the sound of x-acto blades and pens clattering on glass topped light tables, the whisper-soft hum of an ultrasonic cleaner somewhere cleaning technical pen nibs and parts.

You could sit me down with a color mockup render from the artist with the keyline even with blended colors and I could likely still competently render that in spot colors with blends, crashes and halftones in the Rubylith masks within a given spot color count from 3 to 20.

I'm certainly no master printer, but I do know a wide variety of printing and reproduction technology. I know enough random stuff about reprographics that we could get stone age and make newspapers and news letters with slabs of wood or stone via a variety of techniques be it cutting or wax resist.

Lately I most often deploy these analog skills when making small gifts or cards for people. Yeah, I printed that with a bunch of cut up potatoes or hand-lettered that, no big deal.


I also have another actually obsolete media skill, and it's how to run, tune, stack and configure a tri amped or bi amped sound system suitable for a dance party or rave. They don't really run speakers like this any more because it's a huge pain in the ass.

Modern PA or sound system speakers tend towards self-powered units that have integrated and often very advanced hybrid amplifiers and even integrated digital signal processing capabilities and functions. At the more advanced levels this includes remote access to those functions and integration and tuning software that can do some very, very advanced things like calculating delay timing between speakers or even very complicated and fussy stuff like cardioid subwoofer arrays that counter-intuitively use opposite-direction facing bass bins to focus the bass on the audience and limit it to the sides and behind it on stage.

The modern way is honestly better and much less of a pain in the ass and involves rather much less cabling and extra bullshit and you can tune and tweak the really advanced stuff with a tablet or phone and other interfaces and consoles and even use digital signalling for the audio signal path and lots of really super wizard cool shit.

And I will elaborate why this vintage way is an obsolete technology.

The vintage way of doing this is with passive speakers - speakers that have no audio amplification or processing capability built into them, save maybe a passive crossover, fuse or protection. This is an arcane mix of speaker enclosure design with different drivers - the speakers themselves that are installed into the enclosures - and then powering these passive speaker cabinets with a set of external audio power amplifiers.

The tuning and skill part of this is provided by a rackmount device that processes a stereo audio input into three stereo pairs of audio outputs and does some DSP or even analog-ish magic to split the input signal into highs, mids and lows on those three stereo pairs and can even precisely retard or advance the time domain of those split outputs to do what is called "delay timing" to get a stack of speakers to make sounds that arrive in the listening area at the same time and place for the best listening experience.

The equipment list a basic tri-amped system suitable for a small club or dance party looks like this:

2x subwoofers, either single 18" or dual 18" in a variety of cabinet styles, capable of 1,000 to 2,000 watts each or even more.

2x mid range speakers, 10" to 12", likely dual, sometimes mixed with internal crossovers like a home stereo. About 1000 watts each.

2x tops, often a horn loaded tweeter and mid-range speaker combo, in the 2" horn and 6, 8 or 10" mid range. Or just a loaded horn tweeter, as found in the JBL Turbosound system. 500-1000 watts each.

3x stereo audio power amplifiers, one really beefy one enough for both of the subwoofers in stereo and often a matched pair for the mids and highs/tops. Sometimes this is 4x amplifiers, with two mono amps or two stereo amps bridged to mono for the subwoofers.

Powered speaker cables in heavy gauge - three pairs long enough to send to each of the two speaker stacks from the console/amp area, often between 25-100 feet long for each lead. This is a FUCKTON of heavy copper and one of the many reasons why they don't do it like this anymore. Today you might spend more on cabling an old school passive speaker PA instead of just buying some modern active speakers.

A rackmount crossover/delay processor like the DBX Driverack PA.

EQ and other signal processing rackmount equipment.

Power conditioner, if any.

Power distribution, including beefy powered speaker leads to all the amps, the Driverack PA, etc.

3x stereo sets of XLR signal cables to run between the Driverack PA and the 3x stereo amps. These are often of a very long length to run between Front of House mixing console or other signal source and wherever the amps live to run power speaker cables to the speakers. Long low power XLRs are cheaper than heavy copper speaker cables!

Side note: It's not uncommon to see audio techs/engineers make power distro boxes that tap into 3 phase or even synthesize 3 phase out of bonded 110 single phase circuits for this, and this is why competent stage/audio electricians are worth their weight in gold or hashish. It's a significant amount of power with old school class A coil based amplifiers and will not only blow breakers but can start literal electrical fires.

Even the smallest version of this kind of audio consumes about as much power as a decent home/shop welder and can push a 60+ amp draw momentarily for very heavy bass hits. Or more. An old school mostly or all analog sound system like this can draw impressive amounts of power.

I can't even count the number of times I've seen a rave bust fuses and breakers and have major power issues.

And now we can talk about feeding this huge pile of cables a signal from a live mixing console or stage full of live instruments, electronic instruments and submixers or some kind of DJ rig and that is it's own truckload of gear. Live band equals lots of mics, stands and stage hardware and instrument or mic cables, a "snake" to feed those signals to the front of house. DJ or electronic stuff often involves even more cables and lots of electronic hardware and tables and sometimes even more power needs and a submixer or two on stage.

We'll skip that and get back to the speaker and PA side of things.

Now, take this six speaker stereo setup and expand it into a much larger PA system like this, imagine, say, 20 subwoofers, 20 mid range cabinets, maybe 10-20 top/high cabinets and all of the amps and the heavy gauge audio signal power speaker cables required to drive them, just like an oversized home stereo from hell. Imagine 20/20/10-20 speakers times two, one for each side of the stereo pair in a huge, long stack or wall, maybe 100 feet wide.

I've worked on some systems this size a few times and the speaker cables and amps alone can take up most of a box truck in addition to the box truck or full sized trailer required just for the speakers.

So we've got a stack of speakers, ideally on the ground for our purposes of bass-oriented dance music, as well as to take advantage of an audio engineering property known as acoustic coupling.

These speaker cabinets are, ideally, matched to resonate together as a cohesive integrated unit to reproduce sound more effiecently, IE, louder and more accurately. The JBL Turbosound system is an textbook example of this style and design of sound amplification and reproduction, but I've seen systems that mix up brands between DIY bass bins and commercially available mids and tops.

So we have a sort of cake of speakers of subwoofer on the bottom, mids in the middle and highs on the top. We have them powered by a single set or chained array of amplifiers, and they're getting their audio input signal from the Driverack PA or other signal processing unit.

Using this processor or chain of processors you configure a range of audio frequencies to send to your three kinds of speakers so they only receive the range they reproduced the best, sometimes with a bit of overlap.

In particular the cutoff and counter frequencies are very important for the subwoofers. You can get a lot more energy and efficiency by cutting off everything below, say, 30 hz and above 110 hz or whatever the sub is rated for because an analog, passive speaker without any sort of built in crossover will waste energy trying to replicate those frequencies even though neither the cone nor the resonant modes of the enclosure can handle it, and that effort is effectively just wasted as heat.

So you set and tune your crossover points to get the most energy, clarity and efficiency out of the low, mid and high speakers. You can do this to spec, but it's also something that can be refined and tuned by ear once you know what the errors and issues sound like.

Now back to the stack. We ideally have a set of speakers and driver elements aligned mostly in a vertical axis in two stacks, or an entire wall of speaker enclosures with each high/mid/low element aligned in a stack.

Because of the speed of sound the the sounds emitted by these speakers will reach the ears of the audience and dancers at slightly different times.

This can introduce sound reproduction problems, a sort of mushy, uncrisp sound and things like comb filtering, phase issues and destructive interference. It can waste and degrade the energy and quality of the sound.

You can calculate delay timing to adjust this via time and distance calculations. The DriverackPA in particular has a mode that is basically about measuring the distance between the general center axis of each speaker or driver to set this delay timing, but you can also set and tune the delay timing manually in milliseconds and do your own math.

And once you have all of these concepts under your belt and you get how crossovers and delay timing works and get some experience in tuning these things with different speakers, spaces and arrangements, you can turn a mushy pile of old beat up speakers and amplifiers into something that sounds like a million bucks and wring every last watt out of the available equipment for some really stupendously amazing sound that's loud enough to punch holes in concrete without sounding harsh, unpleasant or distorted and has enough bass to rustle even the stalest jimmies.

I have had the pleasure and honor of really properly tuning a few sound systems like this to the point that even my fellow audio/PA nerds and very bass-experienced friends responded with feedback and praise like "Ok what the fuck did you do, you mad wizard? I've never heard this system put out this much bass and sound so loud and so clean."

And "Normally I can barely hear it but this time it shook my bus/trailer home to pieces and all of the stuff fell off everything and it felt like an earthquake please don't do that again."

And even better "Hello this is $BigCity Police Department and you know we hate having to even talk to you weirdos but you guys are really super extra loud tonight and we've been getting noise complaints about a mile on the other side of the freeway interchange."

And beyond the experience of this kind of electronic/dance music, this is definitely why I still love messing with sound and big speakers.

This part isn't an obsolete skill, I just want to talk about it.

It's a really fun mix of physics, science and art and sometimes it feels like being a mad scientist working with dangerous, high energy technology because, really, it's kind of vaguely dangerous, high energy technology and you're messing about with cool physics and speed of sound and complicated science like resonance, feedback and more.

And that's even before you get into the psychology of music and dance. These loud noises might as well be really traditional Blue Note era jazz or Delta Blues, or punk rock or ska or experimental, ambient or noise, and I like all of those, too.

And performing on big sound like this, especially DJing or even better playing some live synths through some very nice and/or also very loud speakers with subwoofers going is a hell of an experience. It's like you get to use electricity and science almost like you're intentionally trying to... attack or energize people in a friendly way and overwhelm them with sound and even tactile sensations, to weaponize sound and bass into something intentionally pleasant as well as challenging, as well as engage in the art of emotional response and communication through music and sound.

It's a hell of a lot of fun.



In wildlife news I just rescued garter snake from my cat, but this time of the year with the current temps he should really be hibernating in a den somewhere with a bunch of other garter snakes.

He was so cute I can't even. And he's definitely a he because smaller and less stripy.

It was very placid and docile and seemed very content to be rescued from the cat and curled up and relaxed in my hand. Never tried striking at me and didn't musk/stink me in defense at all, very calm and cill But when I tried to repatriate him he just sat there because he was too cold and so I was worried about his ability to find his way back to the den.

So he spent about 15 minutes coiled in my hand and another 20 in an open shallow on my desk until I remembered I had some hand warmers.

So I opened one and got it warmed up and put it in the box and about a minute later I suddenly had a very active and turbocharged snake problem on my desk full of tangled audio cables and I don't know why I didn't expect that or even consider that my messy desk is pretty much the least convenient place to have a mostly harmless and very wild snake running around.
posted by loquacious at 4:15 PM on November 2 [32 favorites]


I've gotten pretty good at splitting firewood.
posted by bondcliff at 7:05 PM on November 2 [+] [!]


Not so sure that's an obsolete skill or a skill that will be very valuable in the future.
posted by Stanczyk at 4:26 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]


Another ex-newspaper production person here. I did the same keylining of sheets of typesetter output that everyone else did.

The real action was in pasting up newspaper advertisements, since that was how we got paid. Ads had to be kept pristine even when pulled from one day's run for use in the next day's run over and over again for months, sometimes years. They had to be kept clean and unchanged while also accumulating dust and dirt due to being, basically, coated with wax and glue residue from all the lining tape and pasted-in clip art, from sitting on paste-up boards for sometimes days (production for the Sunday newspaper started on Tuesdays), and from being manhandled by maybe a dozen people every week. Otherwise, redoing them would have meant charging the client a new art fee. In extreme cases we would stat an ad board that had suffered for too long, and use the stat instead until that started wearing out. If you ever wondered why some ads in newspapers from thirty years ago looked like they had been gaussian-blurred, that's why.

I also did the halftoning and camera work at a couple places, which was more enjoyable and more relaxed except when the equipment broke down or one of the press guys phoned up to complain about the quality of a negative. The second newspaper I worked at had an electronic halftoner which was kind of neat; I would tell it what the target high and low light points were and it would do the rest, and that sometimes meant I could run dozens of headshots in a single pass.

The worst part of the job was cleaning the developers. The typesetters, electronic halftoner, and camera rooms each had their own developer systems, basically a series of developer and fixative tanks with powered rollers that fed film through. The tanks had to be cleaned and the rollers also had to be cleaned and it was always a stinky toxic mess that had to be handled on a rigorous schedule otherwise prints would come out cloudy and you'd have to do the whole cleaning process over from scratch, wasting a generous amount of very expensive chemicals and holding up press time.

I still have my keylining skills, for whatever reason. Despite decades of practice and years of drawing classes I can barely draw at all now, but I can still cut film and board with an X-Acto knife or even just a utility knife with absurd precision. I'd rather have my drawing skills back but tbh the cutting skills have probably been more useful in a day-to-day way.
posted by ardgedee at 4:34 PM on November 2 [9 favorites]


Editing MiniDisc track labels.
posted by Rash at 4:56 PM on November 2 [8 favorites]


I do still miss RevealCodes

I thought that the fact that MS Word didn't have this feature meant it would always be second to WordPerfect. In the best of all possible worlds, I would have been right.
posted by she's not there at 4:57 PM on November 2 [12 favorites]


I used to be a proofreader, back in the days when we used blue and red pencils on paper galleys and had a rigid system of editor’s marks.

Me too! I worked for a year at a U of Chicago Press journal after finishing my doctorate. I actually don't miss this process, as I associate it with all sorts of nightmares involving turn-around times, misbehaving post offices, and authorial malfeasances (most notably the Man with the Red Pen, who did not follow instructions and effectively defaced the manuscript; I couldn't repair it enough that the press would touch it, so we had to redo the issue at the very last minute).

The primary excitement of the week involved a big windstorm on Halloween that blew one of my upstairs windows straight out of the frame. As I am of the opinion that storm windows should prevent storms from entering the house, I was somewhat displeased at this turn of events (especially since it happened at 2 AM).
posted by thomas j wise at 5:00 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


I am the queen of InfoPath forms.
posted by hilaryjade at 5:08 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


In the course of my education, I learned to develop photographs from film, to do stop-motion animation with a custom-rigged video camera, to edit video without a computer, and to do research in law books, the kind that appear behind every lawyer in an ad or TV show but are all but obsolete in my experience in practice. All of these were skills I acquired just as they were going out of fashion. And, of course, I learned any amount of skills and tricks for software that will never darken our towels again.

I might have been an animator if I'd come along ten or fifteen years later, but back in the day, that life seemed to involve moving to California for art school and competing in The Industry, none of which interested me. Today, high school and college kids are whipping up fan animations for their favorite podcasts with all the effort I used to spend on Usenet arguments. I love that. And digital art these days? Katie bar the door. It is fuckoff amazing what young people can achieve with the right tools.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:10 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]


I used to be really good at reading maps. My wife would do the driving and I would navigate, and I was a star. I miss using that particular skill, now that we just GPS everything.
posted by arcticwoman at 5:13 PM on November 2 [14 favorites]


I guess that film photography and its subsequent processing and printing is technically obsolete but there are still a lot of us out there doing it. I've actually only taken it up in the last three years but now seldom do much digital photography other than with my phone. I probably shoot at least 50 or 60 rolls of film a year and a few boxes of 4x5 too and develop it all in my basement. There's something very satisfying about making images appear on film or paper; it feels like some kind of magic or alchemy. I sit in front of a computer for 40 hours a week and digital photography just seems like I'm fiddling with yet another fucking computer and it makes me want to scream.
posted by octothorpe at 5:30 PM on November 2 [9 favorites]


I used to be passable at realizing figured bass. That memory feels like a past life at this point!

I had a job recently where I had to train up on software that hadn’t been upgraded and possibly also not patched in about five years. I became pretty fluent in Emacs and a couple of its more obscure modes.
posted by eirias at 6:04 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


One of my earliest jobs was proofreading at our daily newspaper. All the paste-up nostalgia just reminded me that there is one form of error that digital publishing totally eliminated - the paste-up error. Every now and then layout people doing the "puzzle" would cut- and re-cut stories a few times to fit around the ads different ways. Sometimes, they inadvertently lost a piece - most evident when it was the last line of a graf. After spending a couple of years proofing I used to spot them all the time in publications and mutter to myself "paste-up error." . Just recalled I haven't seen a paste-up error in years.

I'm gonna say map reading and route plotting, though. A lot of road trips and a 6-week cross-country voyage, all done analog with pencils, highlighter, map ruler and calculator.
posted by Miko at 6:10 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


Pascal programming.
posted by needled at 6:18 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]


Worked as a stripper for a while back around 1985-86 and got pretty good at it. I hadn't thought of rubylith in years and years! Did a fair amount of halftones too. And, turned those skills to making some fake ids to get into bars to see bands play. All long gone. It's a good thing I quit and went back to college. I remember at the time that the people who had been in the business for a while and had serious skills were making great money working four days a week. It was really tempting to make a career of it. All gone.

In other news, it's a five day weekend because it's university festival, but I went in anyway on Friday because I had work to catch up on mostly good stuff that gets shoved to the back burner because classes and exams and committees happen when they happen. But, wrote a proposal for a conference next summer and hope it's accepted. It's on new (for me) stuff that has nothing to do with language teaching and is really fun.

Yesterday, was cleaning the house and laundry in the morning and a beautiful day so Mrs Gotanda and I spent most of it walking around Shibuya and then Aoyama - Omotesando areas. We went to two small art galleries and I posted some pics on mltshp. Then we went to a sake tasting that one of Mrs G's friends organized. The focus or theme was on internationalization so it was sake brewed overseas or local breweries with foreign staff (or foreign rice!) Met an interesting guy from Taiwan who farms rice half the year there, then brings it to Japan to brew sake in cooperation with different brewers in Shimane. Pretty cool. There was one brewery from Mexico. I asked the guy where in Mexico, and he replied "You know Narcos?" Yep, sake made in Sinaloa. Lazy morning today but then time to get out and go for a long walk.
posted by Gotanda at 6:19 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


I was a tech support rep for an ISP in the late 90's, and used to be able to tell from listening to the squelching and boinging of a 56k modem which string I could slap into the settings to make it connect faster and more reliably.
posted by palomar at 6:29 PM on November 2 [21 favorites]


the squelching and boinging of a 56k modem

What a colorful way to describe that.
posted by eirias at 6:31 PM on November 2 [7 favorites]


I’m nothing if not colorful.
posted by palomar at 6:36 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


I used to be a whiz at "recon," turning library card catalog entries into library database entries through a surprisingly manual process. Earned all my pocket money in college doing it.
posted by praemunire at 6:54 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


It was at that job that I encountered my first word processor--a Wang 2200


I have a certificate in Wang Word Processing, from 1985. I was part of the last of the JTPA program, for single mothers and displaced homemakers. Our teacher was a graduate of Katherine Gibbs. She taught us not only how to type, but type backwards, for accuracy. I could once type 80 wpm on an IBM Selectric. So much easier than a manual typewriter, which is what I learned on in high school. The internet has ruined my typing skills, for sure.

We girls had to teach each other how to use the Wang word processor, as we learned, one after the other. I was young, some were my age, some were older. Their husbands had left them, and they'd never worked, so they were allowed to take this class.

They invited me to the truck stop bar once. It was a lot of fun. A bunch of women, living it up, dancing with strange men, getting drunk, then going to the diner next door. All of the waitresses were dressed in black, and had bouffant hairdos.

As a shamed single mother who had gotten pregnant in college, and had to go back home, this program was great. I remember our teacher lamenting over how Reagan had killed it. We were the last.

I never did use my Wang Word Processor certificate after that. I did use my typing skills, that our Katy Gibbs teacher had taught us. I used a Xerox Memorywriter to type insurance policies. Oh joy. On carbon paper, and if we made a mistake, we had to scratch it off and correct it. 40 insurance policies a week, and more than 5 errors, that would get you into trouble, oh boy.

But! We had Big Hair, Sweater Dresses, and we were allowed to listen to our Walkmans while we typed. WHAM!

I also had my HAM radio license, Technician Class, and had a dual band antenna on my car, as I was commuting. Mostly to grouse with other HAMs about traffic. I know Morse code and stuff.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:10 PM on November 2 [25 favorites]


I'm also a really good map navigator. I did a lot of long car trips in the pre-GPS days and have some definite coups of traffic-avoidance in unfamiliar locales under my belt.

I learned HTML fairly early on which was impressive to people for like a year and then never developed that skill any further and found myself obsolete terrifyingly quickly.

I had a friend in high school who was amazing at zine creation and mix tape making. I secretly was pretty salty with envy at his seemingly effortless skill in these areas.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:14 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


I can drive a stick!

Well I think I still can, but it’s gotten more and more difficult to buy them in US (and makes less and less economic/fuel sense than in the past).

Someday it will become habit to put car in park before turning it off, rather than just pulling the e-brake....
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:29 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


I have a very fun stick-shift car now; I absolutely love-love-love it and I've hated every automatic-transmission econobox I've ever owned. While on one level I look forward to mature electric-car technology (charged by clean renewable energy), on another level I will regret leaving behind the sheer fun and active involvement of manual-trans driving.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:36 PM on November 2 [8 favorites]


I can program in the WordPerfect scripting language. I use it to do the kinds of text manipulation that other people do in python etc. And I still use it. I basically combine it with mail-merge to do the brute-forciest inelegant-but- gets-the-job-done data cleaning you've ever seen.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:39 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: Enough bass to rustle even the stalest jimmies
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:44 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]


I was unpacking the last boxes from the USA storage space when I come across stuff my mother insisted I take; high school paraphernalia. First was a box of punch cards from my first Assembly and Pascal programs. Next was my first recipe book, then a lighting design for Flowers for Algernon. I was the only girl lead light designer for theatre at school. This probably doesn’t count but I liked looking at the charts and designs.

I can score and transcribe music quickly by hand onto staff paper. I also have good handwriting and use a fountain pen, which I always carry with me. I write letters and postcards.

I’ve been always technically-minded with clever slim fingers:
* film splicing
* video editing
* mending audio tapes : reel, cassette, 8 track
* programming VHS timer
posted by lemon_icing at 8:02 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


Back when I was a kid I could shine a light on a three-sided record and drop the needle in the right place to get the right track. This was really impressive because it was the mid 90's and the nadir of record's popularity.

Also, I figured out how to get the goddamn film onto a developing reel in a pitch black closet during the last two weeks of photography class and have never had to use that skill again.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:04 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


Oh, of course this question comes up as I FPP on the blue about Perl. Curses. There's a long story about how my father refused to buy me compass and protractor set and I was devastated only to be given a T-square and some fine drafting tools and a book on Mechanical Drawing and I can draft like a mofo (on paper). Or stealing the Big Boss's computer because it was the only one buff enough to load the file and run WordPerfect so I could macro the day to publish the campus telephone directory. Or the sadness that you can't just take apart cars and fix them anymore (I grew up at a go-kart track, and my neighbor built hotrods) so banging on the generator to get the car to start (or push starting) or just ripping the damn thing out while waiting for new brushes to arrive is no longer a good idea. Shifting without a clutch because the damn clutch pedal broke off until finding someone willing to weld it back together (they wouldn't just let me do it myself). Converting static libraries into dynamic libraries when that change came along. Clipping bits on a motherboard and replacing them with a dead-bug to fix a design flaw doesn't really happen any more. Nor taking a blowtorch to a circuit board to recycle components. I don't think anyone draws PC boards with an acid-resist pen and drills out the holes themselves anymore.

I luvs my useless skills, waiting for the zombie apocalypse when I get to be the mad scientist.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:08 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]


More and more, my body is becoming obsolete technology. Don't get me wrong, the cybernetic replacement parts have their good points, too. But there was a point when I realized that I can no longer actually survive as a purely biological entity. Ironically, I even have sufficient skills to provide for basic biological survival by making my own tools, if need be, and I can build damn near anything. I'm very handy. But I'm not a basic biological model anymore. Without modern technology, I cannot survive. I mean, I wasn't looking to live forever or anything. But I don't like knowing how tethered I am now to modern society.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:24 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


After reading about loquacious' skills with audio gear, this is much less impressive -- quickly queuing up vinyl, and picking a next song with seconds to go (from drawers of CDs), from my years as a radio DJ. I heard that my college radio station when all digital a few years back and sold off their awesome library of CDs and old vinyl, which made me sad for their loss (and the fact that I wasn't there to buy any ;) ).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:42 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


I’m nothing if not colorful.
"When you can't be good, be colorful"
-- Pete Conrad
posted by Rash at 8:53 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


My first programming was done in a game scripting language that is largely though not entirely useless, now. Which is to say, there's a handful of people who'd be thrilled if I said I was going to come back and help them with stuff, now, but I don't even play myself, anymore.

But it did turn out to be super valuable in talking people into giving me more of a chance when I got into writing code for a living, which is a good excuse to tack on that I just got a new job and I start in a couple weeks. I appear to have, er, agreed to work for a startup. I might be losing my mind. But they have a business model! So, here we go.
posted by Sequence at 9:02 PM on November 2 [3 favorites]


Memorizing phone numbers.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:30 PM on November 2 [9 favorites]


People are generally flabbergasted by my penmanship (left-handed) but I used to make serious money hand addressing wedding invitations and the like. I also had a good side gig designing bespoke business cards. I had a useful variety of hand fonts and could usually match requirements for just about any request.

The last time I hand addressed some envelopes for a friend's nuptials, four came back with a sticker saying the address was illegible. I carried them into the PO to resend them, and asked the lady if they were legible enough. She said they were perfectly legible; the mail carrier doesn't read cursive.

My heart died a little that day.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 9:48 PM on November 2 [16 favorites]


"After reading about loquacious' skills with audio gear, this is much less impressive -- quickly queuing up vinyl, and picking a next song with seconds to go (from drawers of CDs), from my years as a radio DJ."

Yes! I was a commercial jock in the early 80s and I could cue up a 45 while I was speaking on-air (weather, PSA, etc) because I wasn't paying attention and hadn't already cued something up. And I could, like you -- well, like all jocks of that era -- cue up a 45 very quickly. This involved putting the channel on cue on the board (three position toggle and a palm-sized "pot", a rotating level control), grabbing a 45 of the right type for that place in our hourly format "clock" and placing it on the turntable, disengaging the drive belt so the turntable rotates freely, dropping the needle on the silent intro, quickly spinning the turntable to the beginning of the song, reversing it back to about a half second before it begins, re-engaging the belt, taking the channel off cue on the board and to the ready state, turning the pot up to the expected correct level. Then, at the right moment, you just set the toggle to the rightmost "live" position, which triggers a relay engaging the turntable motor. I could do this almost entirely without looking because the turntables were to my right but I had to keep my mouth to the mike -- and all because not only had I failed to do this earlier right after I started the previous song, but I'd also broken the cardinal rule of keeping a spot or PSA in one of the cart drives that I could play in just such a last-second emergency.

You don't have dead air in radio, most especially commercial radio. I mean, the dead air siren begins after ten seconds of silence and it's legit terrifying, especially if, you know, it's your own stupid fault.

The first thing I thought of when reading this post was reel-to-reel audio production and especially splicing. I find it super-cool that so many other people here did that and thought of it. I actually had a job that was mostly full-timing splicing -- it was taking special spools of cart tape from a modified reel-to-reel filled with songs dubbed from a master and splicing them apart and assembling each one into a cart. I worked at a company that would program a station's entire format on a weekly basis and ship all the music as a bunch of carts. In some cases this went to automated systems, in others with jocks using just cart machines. That's a very specific, limited, mid-eighties time-period with that exact mix of trends and tech involved. But I did a whole bunch of splicing. It was the overnight shift. I was eighteen and had just moved to Dallas after working for a year as a radio jock.

Then the next thing I thought of as I was reading this thread was Pagemaker. Sure enough, someone else mentioned it. PM was a page-layout app built around the workflow that was done physically, with paste-ups and the like. I found it very sensible and I've never adjusted to how these apps evolved. I've always had InDesign, but I can barely use it.

Yeah, Perl. I loved Perl; which probably I shouldn't admit so freely. CSH scripting -- now that's archaic. Not tcsh, CSH. Despite how it was against best practices. No, this was a c shop and so for some reason we scripted in csh. (The author of one of the other shells literally worked in the building next door, but no matter.) I did get them to allow me do some things with Perl, though. I was the build engineer for the nightly build of a petroleum geology app that supported six different Unix platforms -- I implemented a bunch of scripted automation, monitoring, and reporting. (Enough so that a wizened coworker warned me not to automate myself out of a job.)

I could tune-up a car with regard to replacing plugs and distributer contacts, and adjusting the distributer timing with a strobe. Not mad skillz, or anything, but that was like a basic important thing for decades until electronic ignition.

I worked (then managed) at Radio Shack during the period when they still wrote up all purchases by hand. I could do the math, including sales tax, in my head as I was writing it up -- something that not-infrequently made customers doubt the accuracy. (Similarly, when I waited tables I could take a complete order for a four-top, from drinks through entrées, all by memory but I quickly learned not to do that because it worried the customers.)

As a hobbyist, I could diagnose and repair many electronic devices back when it was replacing a transistor or cap or resistor or solenoid or pot or whatever. Like with automotive repair, most of that is a thing of the past and it makes me sad.

There have to be some really good things we are a forgetting. I have this feeling. I could reliably dial a phone by the "hook" (or whatever); being a percussionist and wannabe phreaker helped.

For a while in the mid-nineties to early 00s, I was genuinely an expert at building and fixing PCs. I pretty much knew most everything about common hardware -- I never did it professionally, but on several occasions I discovered I had more expertise than those who did. I'm a huge gadget nerd and PC hardware really hit the sweet spot for me -- I was truly good at this because it was genuinely fun for me to read magazines and USENET and other sources to keep up with this stuff in detail. I'm the kind of amateur who kept up with what was happening in chip design and manufacturing. I got a hard-on for the transition to 64-bit. (No, really, I might have had a three-way once with a DEC Alpha processor and 64-bit NT.) I was pretty good at installing Linux distributions by downloading and copying to floppies ('94, Slackware). Or, for that matter, OS/2 and NT. So many goddamn floppies. Someone mentioned autoexec.bat and config.sys memory management. How about DESQview? That was so cool.

I know, I've completely morphed into That Old Guy.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:08 PM on November 2 [13 favorites]


"Memorizing phone numbers."

Haha but, also, oh god that's so true. I'm struck dumb when someone asks me my own number these days because I can't remember. Someone else's? No way.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:12 PM on November 2 [9 favorites]


Operating a 10-key calculator by touch. I'd practice with a phone book (total a column of phone numbers; repeat; if the totals are different, repeat!) I don't think one can make a buck doing this anymore, and for me neuropathy pretty much rules it out.

For the audio geeks, I can still install a phono cartridge, align it, set azimuth, vertical tracking angle, tracking force, antiskating, all that good stuff. That was obsolete technology for a few years, anyway.
posted by in278s at 10:29 PM on November 2 [4 favorites]


When I was in high school I figured out exactly where to give our (mid-80s, faux-wood-paneled) TV a good whack when the colors got wonky. Usually fixed it! Always cathartic. Flat screens are better in almost every way, but you can't really whale on them the same way.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:45 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


Using ResEdit to manipulate the resource fork of Mac programs from the System 7 through MacOS 9 era. When I was in high school there was a big fad for the game Snood, and my English teacher was very proud of his high score that he got on the classroom computer. One day a student beat his high score during lunch break, and he was "furious" (he had a very jokey relationship with his students). I offered to fix his problem using my secret hacking skills, which consisted of confirming that the high scores were stored in the resource fork in an unobfuscated form. Honoring my agreement with my teacher, I used ResEdit to cheat him back into having the better score by swapping his name and that of the student who'd beaten his score around in the high scores list. But in an act of uncharacteristic mischief, I also made another change, adding a new high score equal to INTMAX under my own name. Which, of course, would be seen by my many classmates who came to play Snood during lunch.

Similarly obsolete (I think?), programming AppleScript. It was my first programming language (alongside the Hypercard callback language), and one of my first big projects (undertaken when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old) was what was effectively a simple text adventure conveyed entirely via the Mac's system modal dialog boxes.

There are actually quite a few programming languages I used to be fairly good at that aren't really obsolete, but my knowledge of them is: PHP, Tcl/Tk, LabVIEW's "G", TI Basic (that one might actually be obsolete), the AutoIt scripting language... Honestly I think there might even be more that I can't remember. The late 90's were a hell of a time to be a geeky teenager.
posted by biogeo at 11:09 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]


Oh, and a skill that's about to be obsolete: posting at earlier times than previous posts. (You might need to change your time zone to US Eastern to fully appreciate this skill.)
posted by biogeo at 11:14 PM on November 2 [5 favorites]


I was expert at LOTUS 1-2-3. I was mad fast at using the back slash keyboard commands.

What I was really good at was scalping tickets outside Madison Square Garden. Mostly Ranger and Knicks games. I would take the LIRR in and just start buying and selling. I was really good at reading the market and understanding the time element. Prices rose up until about 10 minutes before game time and then fell hard. This was all printed tickets. I started as 1 16 year old when a family member's company had season tickets and they asked me to sell them a few times. I was given four tickets. Two to sell and two for me. After that I would just go and buy some either at the box office or from a season ticket holder looking to sell. They would see a teenager, and think I was not going to scam them and would often sell them to me at face and even give them to me on occasion. I made good money and saw lots of games all through high school. I also traded tickets with brokers. One time a broker needed certain tickets for a client he had promised, and he gave me two World Series tickets at Yankee Stadium for four early regular season Rangers tickets. I was willing to make a two sided market to anyone. I later turned it into a legit profession as a floor trader on the CBOE and CBT. Electronic tickets and StubHub like markets ruined it for us independent entrepreneurs.
posted by AugustWest at 12:09 AM on November 3 [9 favorites]


My people! I share so many of the obsolete skill sets with many of you. I had a B&W film darkroom set up in my house for many years. I was a whiz at opening a film cartridge and winding the film on reels perfectly straight.

I too, did manual paste-up production. I still miss my old waxer. I still have my light table but it gets no use these days.

I was a fast and accurate keypunch operator and could replace star wheels in a flash.

Ahh the wonderful era of Mac System 6-9, I was a li'l devil with ResEdit. At my poor-ass food co-op, I solicited donations of used Macs and set up a nine station Appletalk network without any training. I became a master of SCSI daisychaining and troubleshooting conflicting extensions.

Snood! I wasn't the greatest, but I was pretty good. I played co much I could see all the grinning and grimacing faces when I closed my eyes at night.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:29 AM on November 3 [6 favorites]


I’m quick at paper filing, which was briefly my job but is now probably most useful as a loving intervention for friends and family who have a years-deep box of unordered paper. I have also accepted that abandoning all of those ideas is the right approach in my email, after years of stupid folder hierarchies. God, I love making a hierarchy.

I am neat at sewing by hand, and I make my own clothes (with a machine!), darn, knit, and am learning natural dyeing. The slow processes are really enjoyable.

The near-obsolete skill I most want to learn is sewing machine repair, not least because the technicians here are all men in their 60s and 70s. I wish I could afford to quit my job and talk my way into a apprentice but I keep trying to figure out another way.
posted by carbide at 1:56 AM on November 3 [6 favorites]


I used to be really quick at breaking into cars! But legitimate like. I worked in downtown Auckland as a dogman (arm-waving guy beneath the tower cranes) in the mid 80's and drivers would park in illegal places. It'd take ages to get them towed so I asked around. Door hardware looks totally different now :(

I used to be a security guard in South Auckland and I certainly hope I never need those skills again. It's illegal to be armed here as a guard but I was the gardener too and used to carry a short garden fork, mess with me and you'd get forked! It was no joking matter as there were murders and shootings on a weekly basis.

But pencil and colour work is still my daily work. CAD leaves clients cold, nothing like hand-colour to get people engaged and get conversation flowing.
posted by unearthed at 1:07 AM on November 3 [6 favorites]


Not me but one of old friend’s job no longer exists:

she designed glorious end papers: beautiful, ornate, and abstract
posted by lemon_icing at 1:59 AM on November 3 [7 favorites]


As a kid I used to play "songs" on the touch-tone keypad of the telephone. You had to either get a recognizable bit out in fewer than seven notes (because we didn't need to use the area code or +1, so it would dial after your 7th note) or you had to play a long piece fast before the ringing kicked in and someone answered in who-knew-what part of the world and we were charged big money for the long distance call. "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was a dependable go-to.

Also stick shift....on the column! One of my first cars was 25+ years old when I got it, but it shifted on the column which I just loved. What I loved even more was seeing men's (inevitably men's) faces sour-sqranch up like WTF? when they tried to drive it into the mechanic's bay/parking garage/etc. after reassuring me Of course they could drive a manual transmission!

And not so much obsolete as out of favor: diagramming sentences. Despite Sister Juliet's best attempts in 7th grade English class to shame me out of any intellectual capacity by screaming at me on winter days that I was a "PAINTED WHORE!" when in fact my lips were always chapped, I loved diagramming sentences and was damn good at it. (Maybe I'll just go ahead and diagram that sentence right now...)
posted by cocoagirl at 4:41 AM on November 3 [9 favorites]


ResEdit! WordPerfect 5.1 and the magic of Reveal Codes! Also, from 1995-2000 I worked for a small company that sold advertising specialties, i.e. pens and mugs and various tchotchkes that you could have your logo put on. I had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the best and most reliable companies that produced these things, and personal relationships with the salespeople at my go-to sources such that I could when necessary finagle a quicker turnaround than they were supposed to be able to do, and it was often profoundly satisfying. In the early 2000s it became possible for people to order the products for themselves over the internet, and the small distributors like mine were gone forever.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:19 AM on November 3 [1 favorite]


You don't have dead air in radio, most especially commercial radio.

Leading to the stormy afternoon in 2004 or 2005 when I was out shopping and heard “Hollaback Girl” in the car. Then I heard it in the store. Then I heard it in the sandwich shop. Then twice more in the car on the way home.

Eventually the DJ came on and explained that lightning had knocked out their main computer, so he’d been manually swapping CD singles in their two players. Then one CD player had broken. Then “Hollaback Girl” got stuck in the other. It would play, but would not eject. His only choice was to play it over and over and over.

I left the radio on just to see how long he was going to have to play it. I think it was two or three more hours. That poor man.
posted by snowmentality at 5:29 AM on November 3 [19 favorites]


Less than 2 years ago I became proficient in MUMPS programming.

Stay where you are. I'll be right over with the family-size bottle of scotch and the special extra-absorbent crying handkerchiefs.

As for me, I used to be really good at juggling ports and IRQs with BIOS settings and DIP switches to cram in yet another peripheral. I think I actually had all four COM ports in use at once as well as the printer port.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 5:53 AM on November 3 [4 favorites]


I guess that film photography and its subsequent processing and printing is technically obsolete but there are still a lot of us out there doing it.

I keep wanting to get back in to film - I had always intended to build out a darkroom when we bought a place but now the basement's filled with junk tools and bicycles. I spent many late nights in college developing and printing; I used to buy film in bulk and roll my own canisters to save money.

Up until, oh, seven or eight years ago I still used a slide rule fairly regularly. Nowadays the iPad does all of my flight calculations for me, but the whiz wheel is a pretty ingenious device. I participated in flight competitions in college, and one of the events was to plan a flight with the E6B and then fly it - given a set of lat/lon coordinates, you had to hit each waypoint, write down the symbol that had been laid out on the ground, and then land and refuel. You were scored on how well your flight planning matched your actuals - time enroute to each waypoint, total flight time, and total fuel burn. For a 40-ish minute flight, I could get to within around 30 seconds on total time a couple tenths of a gallon fuel burn.

If you are especially good with the wheel, you can dynamically update your flight planning in the cockpit to account for differing winds forecasts. I never did this much because the planes I was flying didn't have good enough (or, frequently, any) autopilots to let me take my attention away from it for long.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:06 AM on November 3 [6 favorites]


I used to buy film in bulk and roll my own canisters to save money.

I still do that. I've been burning through a 100 foot bulk roll of Ilford Delta 400 since May.
posted by octothorpe at 6:18 AM on November 3 [2 favorites]


Motorcycle spoke wheels. I got to where I could replace the rim and spokes of a Japanese bike wheel, and true it to within 0.01" in either plane, in 15 minutes. Harley and European wheels took a lot longer, and couldn't be made that true, unless a Japanese rim was put on them. Many of them were made with the rim offset on the hub; all the Japanese wheels were centered. Early BSA and Triumph drum-brake wheels were the worst; tightening the spokes to proper tension would sometimes break the hub. Some aftermarket rims were soft, and the spoke nipples would pull right through.

Drafting with pencils on a drafting machine. I still have my machine scales, and my father's.

Interleaf. Word Perfect. Every version of MS Word I learned, because MS kept fucking up the interface. My new Win10 machine shows me they are still doing it. PageMaker. RoboHelp.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:21 AM on November 3 [1 favorite]


Back when I was disc jokey in high school and college (working with a lot of cassette tapes) I could stop fast forwarding a tape right on the song change almost every time.
posted by COD at 6:24 AM on November 3 [2 favorites]


Board drafting! My people! I'm a mechanical engineer now, and even though the 3d modeling software is very useful in some ways, I find myself doing initial design work in a 2d environment, and I have not yet seen a modeling program that can generate good prints for the shop without a load of manipulation.
I can and do drive a stick shift.
Not me, but my older brother went through the last engineering class at Iowa State University that used slide rules. Calculators took over the world.
Some specialized knowledge regarding the 1984 Mazda Rx-7. Fun car! Sadly incompatible with growing family.
posted by coppertop at 7:05 AM on November 3 [2 favorites]


I'm sad that driving a stick has moved into the obsolete category. My Honda Fit may well have to last forever because I probably won't be able to find a non-automatic to replace it.
posted by octothorpe at 7:14 AM on November 3 [5 favorites]


I have plectra made of real bird's quill in my harpsichords. I use these in a professional context. The word "obsolete" makes no sense to me.
posted by Namlit at 9:29 AM on November 3 [5 favorites]


I personally don't have a driving licence, so I can't be absolutely sure, but as far as I can tell being able to drive using a manual gearbox is in no way an obsolete skill in the UK or, indeed, Not-America in general.

The only thing I can think of in my case is that my understanding of web design is cutting edge for 2002. Occasionally someone will ask me to help them with a site (more and more occasionally as the years pass, thankfully), and no matter how hard I try it always ends up looking twenty years old, even if I start with a brand new Wordpress theme.
posted by Grangousier at 10:08 AM on November 3 [5 favorites]


I know shorthand. Learned it with the thought it would be good for taking college notes. I didn’t use it much for that, but it’s still good for writing notes to myself that no one else can read, including catty comments during meetings.
posted by FencingGal at 10:15 AM on November 3 [5 favorites]


Also stick shift....on the column! One of my first cars was 25+ years old when I got it, but it shifted on the column which I just loved. What I loved even more was seeing men's (inevitably men's) faces sour-sqranch up like WTF? when they tried to drive it into the mechanic's bay/parking garage/etc. after reassuring me Of course they could drive a manual transmission!

I've occasionally had problems with valet parking when the attendant didn't know how to drive a stick.
posted by octothorpe at 10:17 AM on November 3 [3 favorites]


- Like LobsterMitten and coppertop I did a lot of technical drafting in jr high and there were few enough young women who did it that I won awards both years. I can draw stuff with t-squares and a bunch of curvy plastic things and a compass pretty well.
- Typewriter typing? Check.
- Running and old school radio station? Yes. We had one in high school. Not sure if I still know how to do it but I bet I do.
- Driving stick, learning how to beat an alternator with a hammer if the brushes get stuck.
- I use HTML and CSS most weeks though I know I no longer have to

Just this past week I went to the library to print something off of a USB drive only to find that my Mac-formatted USB drive wouldn't mount. I knew this was a solvable problem, googled for some answers, installed some drivers, edited the registry and was off to the races! What I did NOT know was that Windows ten will silently fail to boot if it detects "unsigned drivers" so I spent 45 minutes trying to figure out how t broke the library computer until I figured it out. And then the damned thing mounted and I could print my file!
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 10:18 AM on November 3 [7 favorites]


I've occasionally had problems with valet parking when the attendant didn't know how to drive a stick.

I would never allow a parking attendant to drive my stick-shift car. Yes, I'm in the US.

as far as I can tell being able to drive using a manual gearbox is in no way an obsolete skill in the UK or, indeed, Not-America in general

You're absolutely correct. Only in America does the automatic reign supreme. Watch how distressed US tourists get when they discover that most of the rental cars available in Europe have standard transmissions.
posted by Rash at 12:23 PM on November 3 [2 favorites]


Anything to do with design, layout & color separation, pre-computer. I was petty good with a stat camera & sure miss the excuse "I can't talk right now, I'm in the dark!" Calculating enlargement/reduction with a wheel, cutting amber or rubylith with a swivel knife, making drop-shadows by off-setting a positive & a negative, Letraset halftones & press-type... I still own my rapidographs, compass, triangles & French curves.

Lots of other little stuff -- trouble-shooting carburetors... using a compass & a paper topo map... making my own silkscreen frames out of 2X2's with a simple mortise & tenon jig on my radial arm saw... caving with a carbide lamp... formatting web pages with tables... Oh wait, I still do that from time to time. You know what? It works.

When the revolution comes, I'll also still have 3 film cameras & 5 manual typewriters.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:33 PM on November 3 [2 favorites]


the squelching and boinging of a 56k modem

That's my ringtone. Like, on my Android phone.

Most people don't know what the hell it is.
posted by notsnot at 12:37 PM on November 3 [10 favorites]


...and to add to the conversation, isometric drafting.
posted by notsnot at 12:46 PM on November 3


I personally don't have a driving licence, so I can't be absolutely sure, but as far as I can tell being able to drive using a manual gearbox is in no way an obsolete skill in the UK or, indeed, Not-America in general.

It is effectively obsolete for me, because I needed to replace my Subaru Impreza recently and found that manual transmission a) is only available in a fancier, more expensive trim that I do not otherwise need and b) does not claim better gas mileage than the automatic anymore. So neither cheaper at purchase nor over time with fuel.

I've never seen a stick as an option to rent in the US and several work trips to Finland got me automatic transmissions...(which were actually a challenge - neither I nor my Irish colleague could figure out how to start the automatic - this was before I switched back to automatic and had forgotten about generally holding the brake down while turning the key....)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 12:48 PM on November 3


Less than 2 years ago I became proficient in MUMPS programming.

I have a friend at Dell who still needs to know COBOL for some ungodly reason. They pay him a lot to know it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:49 PM on November 3 [4 favorites]


(..)a Wang 2200, I believe--and I still recall the salesman giving the demo showing how you could insert a new sentence or paragraph in an existing document,(...)

I had this moment in 1992 when THE PHOTOSHOP EXPERT at my service bureau that made our 4-color process seps opened a file in Photoshop 2.something (on probably a Mac Color Classic) and adjusted the density of a problem file with the Curves dialog. Probably the most important 30 seconds of my professional career.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:59 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]


This is a fun thread!

In my case, the obvious answer is Morse code. It's not entirely useless. (Single tone or CW transmissions can punch through interference and poor conditions when both voice and digital modes fail or low power is essential. It's an important part of emergency communications.) But, it's pretty useless to me. It''s been ten years since I've used it and my personal radio gear is gathering dust in a closet. I was never exceptional, but I could easily copy 30 words per minute as a teenager. Last time I tested myself, 20 was on the edge of hard. I'm probably more rusty now. The old navy guys who could chat at 70 wpm on two different channels while drinking coffee and talking with visitors wouldn't give me the time of day. But, as a teenager in the mid-90s, I was among the youngest enthusiasts I ever met. It's pretty rare I meet someone - even among electronics folk and radio astronomers - that has any experience in the subject these days and who isn't nearing retirement.

I also became pretty good at fixing CRT televisions as a teenager. That still comes in handy, since we use rather a lot of expensive lab hardware that's as old as I am and needs regular care. But, it's not really a marketable skill these days, when the answer to any broken television is either, "it's the software," "it's the power supply," or "just buy a new one."

This month I helped a 22 year old modify some legacy Fortran 77 code - a language which was a punchline when I was forced to learn it twenty years ago. I'm not sure quite how to feel about that. I hope the techniques and context are valuable, even if the details aren't.
posted by eotvos at 1:03 PM on November 3 [4 favorites]


Devils Rancher, a relative of mine who is old enough to be on Medicare also knows COBOL and is *totally making bank*.
posted by eirias at 1:30 PM on November 3 [2 favorites]


Before touchscreens took over, for a while I had a Nokia 3200. Take a look at the buttons on it. I got so comfortable texting on that thing that I could walk down the streets of New York City typing messages without even looking at it. I cannot do that on an iPhone.
posted by bananana at 2:10 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]


COBOL turns 60: Why it will outlive us all

I read that article recently and I'd thought it had been posted here. Maybe in a comment? But it's a very interesting piece.
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Social Security Administration, to name just three, were still using COBOL. According to a COBOL consulting company, which goes by the delightful name, COBOL Cowboys, 200 billion lines of COBOL code are still in use today and that 90% of Fortune 500 companies still having COBOL code keeping the lights on. And, if you've received cash out of an ATM recently, it's almost certain COBOL was running behind the scenes.
If my dad were still alive, he'd be 76 and too old to even be doing contracting work, but the guy running that "COBOL Cowboys" company is over 70. And these old programmers are being very highly paid because there are so few COBOL programmers but so much legacy code. And before anyone says "why in the world haven't they replaced this stuff?", I think a lot of coders here understand why. This is old code that, at this point, is rock solid. And it's mission critical. It would be a very foolish business decision to rearchitect from scratch. That old mainframe code is a benchmark against which today's stuff looks incredibly fragile. Because it is.

In 1995, when the new $7.9B (real) Denver International Airport failed to open because the baggage handling software crashed, that made a big impression on me because I was astonished that we'd reached a point where enormous civil engineering projects could be stopped in their tracks by inadequately debugged code. At the time, I started to evangelize about best practices and initiatives such as clean room programming because I was certain that this was an inflection point where software engineering would be forced to become actual engineering. Wow, was I wrong. I mean, yeah, even as recently as twenty years ago mission critical enterprise software wasn't developed with any real source control and AFAIK that's a thing of the past. But nothing has really changed in terms of our willingness to trade reliability for functionality and we live in a era when we've come to think it's acceptable to hard reboot many of our consumer electronic devices to "solve" a problem.

Anyway, the point is that as absurd as it seems, for the foreseeable future we're stuck with this ancient legacy code because we know it works. (And, BTW, anyone even slightly familiar with that world knows that the reason we didn't have a Y2K meltdown wasn't because it was overhyped, but rather that a whole bunch of people worked very hard to avoid it.)

I do wish my dad had lived to see the day when his generation of business mainframe programmers were able to write their own tickets in their golden years.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:27 PM on November 3 [9 favorites]


Editing autoexec.bat and config.sys to free memory for games
posted by hat_eater


Same here. Also editing and splicing super 8mm film. And doing "special effects" like laser beams and explosions using a sewing needle and markers on each tiny frame. Using a large magnifying glass and a jewelers loupe. I hung scenes from wooden hangers with push pins. It was a lot of fun.
posted by Splunge at 2:36 PM on November 3 [4 favorites]


200 billion lines of COBOL code are still in use today

Dang. I started learning COBOL back in the day, before I rerouted into IT; maybe I should get up to date on it. Sounds like it could be the difference between affording old age and living out the remainder of my days under a bridge somewhere, and I'm not even kidding.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:08 PM on November 3 [5 favorites]


I can pour a mean sequencing gel. No bubbles, lovely resolution for up to a few hundred basepairs, nice freshly 32P-labeled Maxam-Gilbert ladders. In an era where you can sequence a bacterial genome for under a thousand bucks, this is not exactly a skill that is in high demand.

(That said, I actually have had to make use of this particular skillset every half decade or so. Never for plain old sequencing, though - mostly more esoteric things involving DNA damage or protein binding.)
posted by ubersturm at 3:57 PM on November 3 [3 favorites]


I don't know if it is obsolete, and I wouldn't claim any particular expertise with it, but I was given five-minutes of instruction and a monitor-only headset (for getting cues from the director), and ran a carbon-arc follow spotlight for the high school variety/talent show. That thing was pretty ancient looking when they turned me loose on it. You had to keep an eye on the arc to make sure it didn't wander off the focal point. It was supposed to feed the electrode in automatically, but sometimes you would get one that burned a little faster, and the arc would get long as the rod burned away faster than the rack fed it in, and you would have to manually crank it a little closer before the gap got too big and the arc would go out. Teenage me thought that was pretty cool.
posted by coppertop at 4:53 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]


I'm sad that driving a stick has moved into the obsolete category. My Honda Fit may well have to last forever because I probably won't be able to find a non-automatic to replace it.

Still a good few, but now they're concentrated more in the fun-car category than the budget/basic, so you often have to move up to a fancier model/category to get one.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:06 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]


I never really learned major manual skills, and the early digital skills I learned have almost all aged out:
  • Z80 assembly language. I'm not great (Devonian's the smart one in that dept here) but I can still see a hex dump and disassemble it in my head. Nobody needs this now.
  • Debugging giant PostScript separation files. Absolutely nobody needs this now.
  • Manually censoring weather station data. To set up the display just right so you could tracked temperature and wind speed gradient and you'd notice the anemometer trace slowly become less spiky as the cups/vane iced up and then slow down and stop completely: knowing just how far back to place the censor marks so those data would be excised: all done with AI and non-mechanical sensors now. Nobody even knows anyone ever needed this now.
In the 1990s, I was a master of converting multilingual text from standard to standard

Ooh ohh, me too! The day we got a package from Moscow of a giant 9-track tape from the university linguistics department … we still had an auto-load tape drive on the Suns, and we got that data off and readable even if it had been written on an IBM mainframe in some block data format in an EBCDIC Cyrillic encoding …

… Morse code. … The old navy guys who could chat at 70 wpm on two different channels …

Hoo yes. I knew some very elderly ex-Swedish navy guys who chatted full break-in CW: literally keying between the silences of the other party's signal. To hear it on the air sounds like some bizarre digital mode. I'm pretty sure the old Meatball Net is quieter now: the guys I knew would be pushing 100 now.

Never could key or copy CW myself. Microcontrollers and software did it so much better.
posted by scruss at 5:58 PM on November 3 [3 favorites]


“ I learned HTML fairly early on which was impressive to people for like a year and then never developed that skill any further and found myself obsolete terrifyingly quickly.”

Haha, this exactly. I occasionally get the chance to write HTML for work now, and it’s my favorite part of my job. I’ve actually been toying with the idea of an AskMe post asking if there are still any jobs where hand-writing HTML is a thing.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:30 PM on November 3 [1 favorite]


Push starting cars! Yes, the 1984 Chevette is steaming green antifreeze from the vents but we can make it go!
posted by bendy at 12:35 AM on November 4 [9 favorites]


I have several mentioned above - pasting up, Hypercard, and, well, the earliest versions of Dreamweaver were basically writing HTML.

But one I think about still was the Scantron machines of the 90's. The ones you had to hand-feed, that constantly barfed up paper or data. I got pretty good at using the one my office had, which is good because I spent hours running practice SATs, GREs, etc. through that horrible thing.
posted by wellred at 5:25 AM on November 4


I can probably still strip down and rebuild a Shimadzu GC-8A gas chromatograph in less than an hour.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 7:13 AM on November 4


Push starting cars! Yes, the 1984 Chevette is steaming green antifreeze from the vents but we can make it go!

I drove my 1976 Sunbird for ages without a working starter. I lived in State College which is hilly so I'd always just park facing downward and roll to a start. I drove to a Dead show in Syracuse with two friends and they'd just jump out and push each time.
posted by octothorpe at 7:43 AM on November 4 [2 favorites]


I play a fully analogue, wooden instrument of the violin family - to a high standard, but recreationally. My husband thinks such skills are obsolete but I don't think they're going anywhere any time soon.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:26 AM on November 4 [1 favorite]


Push-starting cars? OK. In the '70s, I lived for a few years in the place that holds the state record for low temperature. It's in the bottom of a big basin, and on windless winter nights, the cold air flows in and drives the temperature down. On subzero mornings, the first person to get their car started would drive around to all their friends' houses with jumper cables. If that didn't work, a spare tire between their front bumper and the back bumper of the comatose car would facilitate push-starting. Needless to say, those were steel bumpers, not the plastic-coated styrofoam of today's cars.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:14 AM on November 4 [3 favorites]


Hand-coded HTML? Check
Drive a stick shift? Check
Editing autoexec.bat and config.sys? Check

In junior high school and high school ('78-'84), I was one of the A/V nerds who always got to run the projector. Growing up, my dad had a collection of 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm projectors in the house, and I knew how to thread, unjam, and replace the bulbs in those things before I learned cursive writing.

Solving IRQ conflicts (and, more recently, WiFi channel conflicts).

I wrote my own ASCII-art-based menu program for floppy disk-based installs for MS-DOS software I distributed to some friends, thereby combining at least 3 obsolete technologies.

Finding books using an actual card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System (but I doubt I'm as good at that as jessamyn).
posted by hanov3r at 12:11 PM on November 4 [2 favorites]


This whole thread is making me smile fondly at things that I am so glad I don't have to do anymore. :) (Push starting cars in winter in Utah, currently top of the list.)
posted by joycehealy at 1:55 PM on November 4 [1 favorite]


I was pretty good at modifying old pre-digital cable boxes to allow premium channels.

I was fast at doing TV commerical dubbing on a quad VTR.

I was an in-demand Bricklin's Demo II programmer in the late 80s.

I was very good at laying out disc geography and authoring for optimizing videodisc interactivity.
posted by bz at 2:04 PM on November 4


Thought of a few more at lunch:

- Typing text messages on an old-school keypad-style mobile "dumb" phone without looking.

- Swapping games on TI-83 graphing calculators.

- Taking care of paper jams on my parents' dot matrix printer and doing the absolute most with WordArt for my grade school projects
posted by rather be jorting at 2:24 PM on November 4 [1 favorite]


Hand coding HTML is still a marketable skill, FWIW. I personally would never trust any sort of WYSIWYG editor for anything non-trivial.
posted by signal at 4:47 PM on November 4


god I wish it was obsolete

On this point, it would be interesting (to me, at least) to ALSO have a discussion on skills you have that are not obsolete, but which you wish were obsolete. Alluded to multiple times in comments above, I think it'd make an interesting thread by itself.
posted by aramaic at 5:01 PM on November 4 [2 favorites]


Well, I'm a playwright and a former music journalist.

But, for reals, I was really good at making mixtapes. I miss it all the time.
posted by thivaia at 8:38 PM on November 4

On this point, it would be interesting (to me, at least) to ALSO have a discussion on skills you have that are not obsolete, but which you wish were obsolete.
I'll second this. (Though most of my own responses are boring and involve university accounting practices or US income tax policies.)
posted by eotvos at 2:32 AM on November 5


skills you have that are not obsolete, but which you wish were obsolete

*distant sounds of running, getting closer*

*door bursts inward, shattering into splinters*

HI IS THIS THE JAVASCRIPT THREAD? AM I LATE?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:35 AM on November 5 [10 favorites]


"skills you have that are not obsolete, but which you wish were obsolete"

PAPER JAMS. I am excellent at removing them, and have deployed this skill in every office-type environment I've ever occupied, but why are they still a thing?
posted by altolinguistic at 7:49 AM on November 5 [7 favorites]


I was once a professional HyperCard developer!

I'm sure I've told this story before, but: so was I, sort of! My first job out of college (2006-ish) was with a company who sold access to a large body of text that was curated in-house, and was rolling into its fifteenth year in business. The technical founder had built the original system on HyperCard, then built patch after patch on top of a custom version of it for years to support novel concepts like "cards with more than 16K of text" and "references to images that were not stored in HyperCard because of space restrictions." We employed a grumpy dude whose sole job was to disappear into the lab three times a year and coerce the thing into creating an XML export of the dozen or so stacks comprising the entirety of this hundred-million-dollar-company's IP, so we could drop it onto a file system somewhere and address it with a (relatively) modern web app.

Somehow, efforts to replace this monstrosity kept meeting with failure, to the point where it became a recurring joke that this thing was going to outlive all of us. We managed to keep the whole thing together with Scotch tape and baling wire, until Apple finally dropped support for PPC-compiled applications in MacOS. In 2011. At which point there began a frantic race against time, as a hastily-assembled team tried to rewrite the thing entirely in a Microsoft technology that was itself halfway to obsolete. Meanwhile, Macs with PPC processors were suddenly at a huge premium, and we had a room in the basement devoted to storing as many as we could scrounge up used on Ebay, because those were the only machines that the editorial staff could use to edit content. The replacement system went into production in 2013, at which time I believe the company's market cap may have passed a billion dollars.

So there you have it. HyperCard might be ancient history, but it was very much in use until six years ago.
posted by Mayor West at 12:35 PM on November 5 [5 favorites]


Corporate slide shows. Like with 21 slide projectors all pointed/synched at the same wall with a VO and sound track. Mounting and cleaning thousands of slides in glass slide mounts- each often made of several layers of image, type, drop shadow, etc. A little computer would be programmed to run those projectors, (nearly) giving the effect of animation. Super beautiful & sharp, but only used to discuss sales / marketing/ boring stuff. Worked in that for a few intense years until one morning video took over and the whole industry was dead.

....and I split wood on the daily so not obsolete in my corner

...and now that winter is here with a vengeance I have the obscure but very useful skill of getting my truck going with a tiger torch aimed at the oil pan to thaw it out enough to start.
posted by cabin fever at 4:09 PM on November 5 [2 favorites]


On this point, it would be interesting (to me, at least) to ALSO have a discussion on skills you have that are not obsolete, but which you wish were obsolete.

I am really good at de-escalation of other people's drama, getting people to calm the fuck down and/or wake the fuck up, focus during crisis, cut through the horseshit, do what needs to be done, treat themselves fairly, and give people the benefit of the doubt. I am really good at this, but it costs me a lot. It's a burden I would love to put down, if I could just get myself to stop caring.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:06 PM on November 5 [5 favorites]


Hugs man, been there.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 8:12 PM on November 5 [4 favorites]


"skills you have that are not obsolete, but which you wish were obsolete"

An ability to fix things despite built in obsolescence (also where repair's been designed out).

Where something is simply wrong I have a high embuggereance level; dammit I WILL fix this - Also like It's Raining Florence Henderson, I tend to take this approach where meetings are dysfunctional "I will not speak at this meeting, I'm just going along to observe" nah, that doesn't work for me.

Obsolescence should be obsolete! Damn, I thought that phrase was original.
posted by unearthed at 8:28 PM on November 5


I've always worked at places that insisted on using PowerPoint, even though better cheap software existed when I was in college. I'm pretty good at it but god do I hate being good at it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:53 PM on November 5

I've always worked at places that insisted on using PowerPoint, even though better cheap software existed when I was in college.
I've been struggling with bad imports from powerpoint into software that will run on any of my OSes my entire adult life. And now that libreoffice has finally nailed it and everything more or less works perfectly the first time. . . all of my colleagues have switched to keynote, which is a complete disaster. If you sign up for an apple web account there's an online translator that generates nearly-acceptable ODP docs, but it's a huge pain in the ass, especially over hotel wifi.

Friends don't let friends save documents in proprietary Apple formats.
posted by eotvos at 9:14 AM on November 6


(Yeah, I'm really bad at using blockquotes. Sorry.)
posted by eotvos at 9:32 AM on November 6


One of my favorite skills I have that is not obsolete and I hope never is, is my ability to re-lace a baseball glove. I also recondition the gloves. For people on my softball team, I charge a six pack (Pilsner Urquell). For all others, $40. It does cover my costs, but not much more. Certainly not labor time which is about 3 hours per glove. It is a hobby really, but one in which I take great pride. Lots of responsibility too. Usually, the glove is one the person has had since childhood and to damage it further or fuck it up comes with great anguish and problems.

Lace patterns can get pretty complicated. Figuring out where to start and where to end is also a challenge. I have learned to take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures of the glove before I start work on it. I had to set up a separate Google account to store the thousands of pictures of baseball gloves I have from every angle imaginable. I have re-laced a glove for a AAA minor leaguer, but my favorite was the one I did for a mom who had kept her softball glove for 35 years and now was getting ready to give it to her daughter, her third child and only daughter and only child who played softball/baseball. It was so small and it was pink and just a great glove.
posted by AugustWest at 9:50 AM on November 6 [5 favorites]


Control-F "making change" - not there. I got really, really good at making change when folks paid in cash - at the movie theater, in the restaurant, and as a waitress. And I *always* counted it back - so if you gave me a twenty for a $7.89 item, you'd get 1 cent makes ninety (cents), and ten makes eight (dollars), then two ones - nine and ten, and another ten makes twenty.
Now the register just tells them how much to give back, and if you try to get less change back by giving them some change - no one can count it back.
yup, I'm old
posted by dbmcd at 10:02 AM on November 6 [10 favorites]


Working with 35mm and mechanical projection systems. I can make up reels on a platter with clean splices made right on the table, thread a projector, tension and run a film across booths between two projectors, change aperture plates and refocus, fix basic mechanical components, etc. I have run 70mm machines, and even older setups that didn't use platters and required the projectionist to manually switch projectors at the cigarette burn between reels.

There are a very few specialty art houses that still require these services, but I've watched people retire in their 80s and 90s from such gigs, and I have no hope of landing one. The relevant skills come in slightly handy at the library whenever a super-ambitious researcher ends up needing something that's only available on microform.

"making change"
Oh god, this. I thought kids were supposed to be learning better math now and I don't understand why this basic bit of arithmetic continues to flop. Some time in my tweens one of my grandparents complained about people not knowing how to count back change anymore, and I apparently internalized it and cultivated it as a desired skill.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:58 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


Connected to making change, just plain mental math in general. I waitressed for a long time, and in two of the places, we simply did not have a POS system that let you enter orders into a computer and calculated it for you. I kept a running tally on my check pad and when they called for the bill, I toted it up - in seconds. Over time and with practice, you learn a lot of shortcuts, and you get to know what some of the most common multiples and sums are without having to do the math on paper. To this day I can still break up a multi-person restaurant bill or calculate tips quickly in my head, impressing no one probably but feeling accomplished.
posted by Miko at 5:30 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


Another one - it's not entirely obsolete, but I purchased books over the counter professionally for 7 years, and did pricing and appraisal for another 4. In that time learned a ton of interesting arcana about books and the pricing thereof, as well as how to calculate said price on an old school paper tape calculator.

Over the course of about a decade the market completely shifted, and went from being a sort of viable career path to . . . not. Some of the antiquarian knowledge would still be useful if I were to go into appraisal or something, but there's not much of a living to be had in used trade books anymore.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:17 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


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