Obsolete Knowledge

It occurred to me the other day my head is full of obsolete knowledge. This is different than useless knowledge. I have plenty of that as well. Useless knowledge is knowing the name of every episode of Star Trek or knowing that Boba Fett made his first appearance in the Star Wars Christmas Special along with Chewbacca’s son, Lumpy. Useless knowledge will allow you to become a Trivial Pursuit shark. However, obsolete knowledge is information that once was useful, indeed might have been critical, but time has passed it by, leaving only the memories.

I still remember how to use the tube tester at the drug store. When I was a kid every drug store had a machine about the size of a standup video game with a picture of a sick television set on the front. There were rows of plugs of varying shapes and sizes. If your television or old radio went on the fritz, you would unplug the vacuum tubes, take them to the drug store and test them out. A meter would tell you if they were still good or not.

I remember when you weren’t supposed to point a video camera at a bright light. My first camera used a Vidicon tube. Bright lights would make long smears on the picture and dark splotches covered the screen where the sun had literally burned the coating off the tube that recorded the image. My camcorders have used chips since the early 1990’s. I can point them at the sun all day long if I want.

How many people remember that you should shake a Polaroid picture so it develops along the edges? How about winding cassette tape back into its shell using a pencil? I still can remember half a dozen settings in my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files that I had to adjust in order to play certain games in DOS. I had a little doohickey on my keychain that I used to adjust the gap on my spark plugs. If necessary, I could still program my VCR to record several programs on a single videotape. I remember from my radio days how to cue up a record in neutral to the point where you first hear sound. Then you spin it in reverse one half revolution. That way, you don’t get that “mrrrr” sound when you start it up.

It seems every day more and more of my hard won wisdom is being consigned to the dust heap of history. There were half a dozen knobs on a television when I was young and I was familiar with them all. VHF had preset “clicks” on the dial for each channel, but you still had to fine tune it to get the best image. Tuning in UHF was like cracking open a safe. I still practice this dark art occasionally at my dad’s house where he pulls in TV signals from the air on an antenna in the attic. This knowledge will finally outlive its usefulness next year when HDTV replaces the old analog system. With digital, the signal is either there or it’s not. There is no tuning involved.

What will be the next piece of expertise to expire? I think soon it will be passé to be able to tell time. We taught my son the little hand shows hours and the big hand shows minutes, but most of the clocks in the house are digital. How much longer will people need to know how to fold a road map when TomTom just tells them where they need to go? The other night I had to really hunt around on my HDTV to change the channel without a remote control. Seriously, when was the last time you physically touched any of your electronics?

Sadly I foresee a time when writing in complete sentences will seem like being able to communicate in Ancient Greek. Even today I get messages from my co-workers, adult professionals all, liberally sprinkled with emoticons and acronyms like LOL and ROTFL. “Oh brave new world, that hath such people in it,” I quote in irony. When we lose language, we will lose part of what makes us people… IMHO.



  1. Here’s some quick explanations of what the terminology means in this blog in case you are unfamiliar with any of it.
    AUTOEXEC.BAT = The automatic execution batch file; the first file that would be accessed in DOS (Disk Operating System) and told the computer which other files to load and in what order.
    CONFIG.SYS = The system configuration file; the file DOS looked at to figure out how much memory and which parts of memory should be loaded with what drivers and programs. This was important because there was the first 640 kilobytes of memory and then everything else. Some programs needed to be run in the first 640 KB of memory, but others could be run anywhere. It was important to know which ones really needed it so you could run more programs at the same time (like the CD-ROM driver, the game that was on CD-ROM and the sound card driver and the joystick driver… you really had to want to play a game badly to go through all this!).
    VHF = Very High Frequency (over the air channels 2 – 13)
    UHF = Ultra High Frequency (over the air channels 14 – 69)
    HDTV = High Definition Television
    LOL = Laughing out loud
    ROTFL = Rolling on the floor laughing
    IMHO = In my honest opinion

  2. This is a great piece, but what does IMHO stand for? Just curious. I’m not good with acronyms–it’s a good think I don’t do text messages!

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