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…