Using Obsolete Skills Can Be Fun

This is the classic tool that connects the wires of your phone system or ethernet cable.

This is a classic Punchdown Tool that connects the wires of your phone system or ethernet cable by "Punching" them down to make the connections.

No matter how hard you work to acquire them, some skills eventually become obsolete. But even obsolete skills get dusted off occasionally.  And it’s interesting when those formerly needed skills, that you haven’t used on a daily basis, suddenly become useful at the oddest times and in the oddest places.

Formerly as a network administrator I had to pull cable, crimp cable, punch down connections and trace network wiring as part of my responsibilities of keeping the local area network up and running.  To do this I had a full tool kit just for phone and network problems.  Eventually my responsibilities changed but I kept the tool kit, moving it from state to state keeping it  “just in case” in a corner of my office.  Recently our next door neighbors had some intermittent  phone problems that were driving them crazy so I broke out my tools to try and solve the problem.  Now I haven’t performed a phone system punchdown since 2002, but I pulled the tools from the “just in case” corner and dusted them all off – punch down tool, toner, amp meter, diagonal cutters and crimper – they were all there and ready to go.

With these tools you can pretty much solve any wiring problem that exists. The first step is simply examining the wiring and trying to understand the phone system “architecture” in a 100-year-old house, always a challenge. The next step was getting out the toner to determine if there was a short in the wiring and if so, where. After crawling through the basement and tracing their entire phone system up and down stairs, around doors, through closets and even up the side of the house I realized that the problem might be in the Verizon FIOS box. And sure enough it appeared that a bad jack was the culprit causing their issues. Verizon sent a technician out who confirmed my diagnosis and voila their phone was working once again. For my efforts I was treated to a tasty slice of grilled pesto pizza – molto saporito.

After resolving the phone issues next door I found myself without a digitial camera for some family events so I decided to break out my old film cameras – a Nikon F2, a Nikon FM2 and a Canon F-1. They are fully mechanical – no auto anything and the light meters don’t even work in the Nikons. So I loaded them with the classic film that documented most newsworthy events of the 60s, 70s and into the 80s – Kodak Tri-X.  At first I was a little rusty but before long all of the old reflexes kicked into gear and I was able to capture some really nice pictures. It’s amazing how those skills can lay there latent and come back in full force with very little prompting. Before I knew it, I had shot about 12 rolls of film and now I had to process them all.
You load the film onto the reels and place them into the daylight safe tank for processing

You load the film onto the reels and place them into the daylight safe tank for processing

A simple enough matter given that I shot and processed roughly 3,000 rolls of film during my time as a photojournalist. Maybe more considering that a busy day might see me shoot 10-12 rolls of film and I had a lot of busy days.  B&W film processing could charitably be characterized as a mature industry well in the cash cow phase of it’s life span. Nothing much has changed for quite some time. In fact the last big “innovation” occurred in the 80s and there isn’t a whole lot of R&D going on, although Kodak did update their manufacturing plants a few ago to reduce their manufacturing costs for film, which still has a robust market surprisingly enough – especially in the student art market.

I took the film into my darkroom and loaded them onto reels that are older than I am but still work great. 30 minutes later I was looking at a few great negatives of my family. Film is certainly more work than digital but there is still something very satisfying because it is a craft, and craft rewards hard work. As much as I enjoyed taking and processing them the retro way, I’ll be scanning the negatives into my computer using my film scanner and not printing them by hand. I may enjoy the craft and discipline that a manual process can enforce on the practitioner, but I’m also a realist and realize that a blend of the old and new technologies can utilize the best of both worlds.
This is the power chart the Navy drilled into my brain. And it's still useful today. From the Images and Drawing Collection of

This is the power chart the Navy drilled into my brain. And it's still useful today. From the Images and Drawing Collection of

Some skills never become obsolete, and I would put my Navy troubleshooting skills into that category.  Over the course of a full year of electronics school the Navy pounded electronics, electricity and radio wave theory along with troubleshooting skills deep into my brain. So deep in fact that I’ll probably be able to spout Ohm’s law forever. 

While I don’t use my electronics theory too often, not too long ago I was working with a new CTO and his infrastructure staff at a company racking up huge overage charges related to power usage at their colocation facility. The charges had been happening for so long that no one had an idea why they were racking such big fees and those fees were now just factored them into their colocation budget and the company paid them without much thought. Ouch!! But tasked with finding significant cost savings they were forced to dig into the details of their monthly bill from their hosting provider and look for savings.

Unfortunately they didn’t know how to calculate server power usage or allocate servers at the data center to prevent overloaded circuits, nor did they know how to calculate the electrical load that their HQ generator could supply. Once I got over my astonishment that a room full of engineers couldn’t figure this out, I quickly introduced them to the Ohm’s Law Pie Chart I learned in the Navy. Using that PIE chart isn’t something I do very often but it still comes in handy. It goes like this:  “Electricity is as easy as PIE.”  P = Power; I = Current; E= Voltage; R = Resistance. So Power = Current x Voltage or PIE; and so on.

Using the ever-present whiteboard in every CTO’s office, I was able to work out the reason for their huge fees and penalities. They were 120% over their agreed upon capacity. Doh! Luckily their server infrastructure was fairly consistent and we were quickly able to figure out how to reduce their immediate fees significantly by formally adding capacity from their hosting provider and also create a server consolidation plan to realize long-term cost savings. This gave their CTO a huge cost-reduction win right away,  allowed for increased cost-savings down the road and I got demonstrate the power of Navy training. Go Navy!

You never know when those “old” skills will come in handy. So what skills have you “retired” that you find occasionally useful? -t

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  1. #1 by bakh inamov on 2009/09/03 - 01:41

    this easy as pie thing is brilliant. i love the shorthands people make up to remember things. sohcahtoa from my trig times is still fresh.

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