Magical Mystery Shorthand

I have a lot of useless skills I’ve picked up over the years, for whatever reason. Don’t get me wrong – while most of them were already useless when I learned them, a few were still mildly useful, way back when. Among the latter are the ability to operate and maintain spirit duplicators (sometimes incorrectly a/k/a Mimeograph machines), and pencil-and-paper drafting, which were rendered obsolete by the Xerox machine and Autocad, respectively. I can speak a few phrases of Esperanto, the native language of exactly nobody, I was fairly proficient at fencing in high school, and I’m perfectly comfortable using manual film cameras from a Minox up to a 4×5 Speed Graphic.

I can also service and restore most tube (valve) radios, know the proper care and feeding of a fountain pen, and can trap small game.

High on the list of useless skills I’d most like to pick up at some point is learning shorthand – either Gregg or Pittman, probably Gregg.

Why? Partly because it’s a skill that’s likely to be for all practical purposes dead within my lifetime. Partly because it’s probably the most fundamentally useless skill – today – which was almost certainly more widespread within living memory than any other.

The crypto geek in me wants to learn shorthand for another reason entirely: it is one of very, very few forms of communication that has not been, and perhaps cannot be, digitized.

Shorthand – Gregg or Pittman, anyway – are not alphabets, or languages per se – they’re ways of encoding language, phonetically. (This also means that they are language-agnostic; the representation of Gregg is the same in English as it is in German or French.) They’re a little bit like character sets – except, unlike UTF-8, say, they have never been digitized, or even mechanized.

I realize this probably seems a bit daft, here in the twenty-first century, but there’s just something incredibly appealing about a form of written communication that is, basically, 100% incompatible with computers, and almost certainly always will be. Babelfish? Machine translation? Spell-check? Automated scanning and optical character recognition? Automatic annotated PDF files? Never going to happen.

Having said that, I’m sure there’s someone, somewhere, who’s e-mailed a scanned message written in shorthand, and – this being the internet – there’s probably someone out there who blogs in scanned shorthand. (Hey, the coolest woman on Earth, Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, has blogged in, erm, Anglo-Saxon or Olde English or something, though I can’t immediately find the links. Funny that you can communicate on the internet in a form of written communication from a thousand years ago, but not in one from a hundred years ago, isn’t it?)

Is there a more useless skill to try and learn, in this day and age? One more incompatible with the all-digital, all-networked era of today? I can’t think of one, offhand…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on December 7th, 2009| 4 Comments »

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  1. On 12/7/2009 at 6:21 pm fasolamatt Said:

    I’m thinking Morse Code is pretty useless, too.

  2. On 12/7/2009 at 6:39 pm Nemo Said:

    Morse Code is fairly useless, yes – but it’s still widely used by amateur radio operators, at least, and can be transmitted digitally. I believe it’s still taught in the Navy, among other places, to this day.

    I used to know Morse, barely, years ago when I went to get my Technician’s license. I never used it, and the advent of the no-code Technician license from the FCC made it something of a moot point. I remember my call, and a few other bits and pieces – codes like QSL and so on, but… yeah, pretty useless.

    Semaphore codes are another nigh-useless means of communication in this modern day and age – though it is, what, ten-bit?

  3. On 12/8/2009 at 3:52 pm Patrick Nielsen Hayden Said:

    You’re probably thinking of this.

    Also, as the coolest woman on earth would probably be among the first to tell you, spirit duplicators are not Mimeograph machines, despite confusion on this point by several generations of American schoolteachers. As you know if you’ve operated one, spirit duplicators (like the Ditto machine) operate by releasing small amounts of an alcoholic fluid over aniline dyes on a master stretched on a cylinder. Mimeographs use real oil-based ink which is squeezed through a stencil, either by centrifugal force or the action of internal rollers. Technically the word “mimeograph” is a trademark of the A. B. Dick corporation, although it came to be in widespread generic use.

  4. On 12/8/2009 at 4:50 pm Nemo Said:

    Thanks, Patrick, that was the link I was looking for.

    And, yeah, I totally spaz’d on the Mimeograph thing. It’s setting up to be one of those weeks…