Everything you ever learn will come in handy some day

When I was in college, one of my professors told me “no knowledge is useless. Everything you ever learn will come in handy some day.”

Certainly it all comes in handy when playing along with Jeopardy, or when doing crossword puzzles – two things I enjoy. But there were so many other things I had to learn which I didn’t particularly care to learn, either in college required courses, or things I learned working various entry level jobs.

For example, I never thought I would ever need — much less put to use — the array of things I learned working as a writer/editor/proofreader for a marketing and physical distribution newsletter publisher. Physical distribution is about trucking, packing trucks with pallets, stacking pallets, inventory management, comparing rates for various shippers, tare weights, etc. I never thought I would ever need that knowledge again. I did get to actually write one newsletter regularly, but it was about customer service and it had to be written on an eighth grade level. It talked about how important it is to answer the company phone exactly on the second ring and always be polite. It’s hard to come up with interesting and different ways to write about that again and again.

When their graphics and paste up person quit, they decided to give me her job on top of my other responsibilities. I thought “here I go again learning something I’ll never use.” Truly, I never had to do that again the archaic way it was done in the 1970s, before PCs and word processors. It was quite a complicated process. We typed the text into a machine that was like a word processor with no memory. It laid the text out perfectly justified, and printed it on roll of shiny waxy finished paper. Then I had to go to the light table, use an Exacto knife to cut the printed text into columns of the right length to fit with the layout, coat the back of the pieces with a wax glue, arrange them on the “dummy” (a piece of paper with a grid of pale blue lines which are invisible to the offset printer), line them up perfectly, and carefully measure the spaces between splices to make sure the leading in the lines was correct. Then I would paste in clip art – which was literally clipped with scissors out of books with the same shiny paper – and create the titles with Press-Type. Press-Type is pages of letters in a particular font, in alphabetical order, printed on transparent plastic sheets. There would be a whole bunch of As and other vowels, as well as Ss and other frequently used letters and not so many Zs. You would position the sheet over your printer’s dummy where you wanted the letter to appear, and use a blunt pencil to carefully rub the plastic over the letter until the ink peeled off the Press-Type and adhered to the dummy. It was tedious work. Every letter in the title had to be separately pressed on that way, and in the process each letter had to be carefully positioned in relation to the other letters, the margins, etc. With a long word, you really had to be careful not to run out of space to fit in all the letters. The type setting machine also had some large fonts that could be used to make titles, but my boss liked those novelty fonts that only came on Press-Type. So you can imagine, laying out one page of a newsletter took hours. Then I would make a photo copy of the dummy and give it to my boss and he would edit it. Then I’d have to go back to the dummy with an Exacto knife and cut apart the pieces and make the changes he wanted — sometimes cutting out a few words and moving the rest of the cut out pieces around to fit.  Because the glue was really a wax, you could peel off the pieces of typeset text and move them around and they would adhere again.

The process of laying out newsletters by hand this way was very tedious and frustrating. I already knew it was a useless skill because the job I had just before that was at a high tech company that was pioneering “automated composition” – using computers to compose the type and layout for the pages of books. You don’t hear the  term automated composition any more because it was rendered obsolete by the invention of PCs and “desktop publishing.”

At Auto Comp Inc., we published the official legal codes of various cities and states, such as the Pennsylvania Code. We would get the recently enacted statutes in the mail from the state legislature or city council and make those changes in the dummies for the updates to the Code. We didn’t use light tables or Exacto knives or Press-Type. Our company was state-of-the-art – or maybe ahead of its time for the mid-1970s. Just a few years earlier this would have been done with type-setting machines that used individual metal letters and lined the metal letters up in rows to compose each page of text. Thankfully I never have to learn to use that.

Instead Auto Comp had data entry clerks who sat at terminals with CRTs (the old fashioned T.V. set type of computer monitor) that were hooked up to the mainframe computer in the other room. The mainframe computers were gigantic cabinets that stood about 6 feet tall had mysterious lights and buttons and large reels of magnetic tape that held the data. The room was under very heavy security, and kept very cold to protect the computers. The computer operators always wore heavy jackets while in the computer room, even in the summer.

Editing data for Auto Comp was a fascinating process, though the individual steps were tedious. We would get the recently enacted statutes in the mail and they would look like the text of the forfeiture reform bill I wrote about yesterday. It would say something like this:

Section 981(e) of title 18, United States Code, is amended—
(1) by striking “is authorized” and all that follows through “or forfeiture of the property;” and inserting “may forward to the Treasurer of the United States any proceeds of property forfeited pursuant to this section for deposit in the General Fund of the Treasury or transfer such property on such terms and conditions as such officer may determine—”;
(2) by redesignating paragraphs (3), (4), (5), (6), and (7) as paragraphs (1), (2), (3), (4), and (5), respectively; and
(3) in the matter following paragraph (5), as so redesignated—
(A) by striking the first, second, and third sentences; and
(B) by striking “paragraphs (3), (4), and (5)” and inserting “paragraphs (1), (2), and (3)”.

My responsibilities as editor entailed photocopying the current version of the statute and drawing a red line through the part that was supposed to be stricken, according to those instructions. Then I would add the text from the new legislation, writing words in the margins, or pasting cut outs from a copy of the new law into the margin, using proofreader marks to indicate where to insert new text.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this yesterday, as I was doing roughly the same thing on my blog, using my computer’s cut and paste function, and applying strike out and red fonts using buttons in Word Press.

At Auto Comp, after I did my editing I handed my pages to the data entry folks and they would type in the whole thing that I gave them. Then they would print it out with a dot matrix printer on 15 inch wide continuous form computer paper, with green and white lines across it, fan folded and perforated at the folds, with sprocket holes on the sides.  I would proofread and make my corrections on that stack of continuous feed paper, making sure the data entry person had made all of the changes to the statute properly. I also learned to proofread the computer tags, which told the main frame where a paragraph ends or begins, when to italicize or insert a superscript footnote number, etc. I was fascinated by that, though it seemed like useless knowledge. On the other hand it was like learning how to read the hieroglyphics of the future – which is exactly what it was. Two decades later in 1995, when the World Wide Web was first invented, this knowledge I thought I would never be able to use came in very handy. My roommate was a high level programmer and he showed me how he was able to make a website appear on the World Wide Web by writing html code out by hand, I recognized those hieroglyphics of the future I had used at Auto Comp. Coding for automated composition using mainframes is not very different at all from html.

One thing I can say about that job at Auto Comp: Nothing I learned there turned out to be useless. I got to see the future of computers when most people thought of mainframes as something in a sci-fi movie.

Soon I got to work on another project at Auto Comp – creating a state-of-the-art legal research database for the Food & Drug Administration. A million dollar contract we were told – that seemed huge then. It was ground breaking. I got to help pioneer the use of computers to do legal research. This was 1976. LexisNexis was founded in 1977 according to Wikipedia, and Westlaw started at about the same time.

When I got assigned to the FDA project I was elated. A senior attorney for the FDA named Arthur had just retired. He had been there forever and was a guru on FDA law. Everyone turned to him with their questions, and he would whip out his huge cache of note cards and find just the thing they were looking for. Our job was to clone Arthur. We jokingly put a paper sign on the door to our project office that said Auto Clone Inc. That sign was still there when the company went bankrupt in 1977.

Cloning Arthur entailed proofreading the data entry folks’ transcriptions of Arthur’s handwritten note cards (or whatever form Arthur’s notes were in), inserting the tags for the various fonts and such, and inserting codes for the categories where the blurb would go. What we generated was essentially what West Publishing’s legal digests look like today. If we had been around long enough to complete the project, the finished product would have run on mainframe computers with dedicated terminals at the FDA.  They didn’t have PCs then.

One thing I discovered very quickly after getting this assignment – I was fascinated by law. I was learning about in rem jurisdiction, which my boss (a lawyer) had to explain to me so that I would know that it is not a typo to say “in in rem cases.” Amazingly, in rem cases became my legal specialty. Many of Arthur’s digests covered the subject of asset forfeiture, but a slightly different kind than the kind I made my career defending against. FDA forfeitures involve products unfit for consumption, food contaminated with too high a percentage of rat feces or sawdust, condoms with too high a leakage rate, misbranded items, and the like. There were a number of lawyers and law students who worked at Auto Comp, and I started realizing I was smart enough to be a lawyer too, and that I would love it. I got accepted to law school just before Auto Comp went bankrupt. It was too bad. That was a great company.

Looking back, Auto Comp scores very high on the “no useless knowledge” scale. Primarily it led to my going to law school and my interest in forfeiture law. Also, it introduced me to coding, enabling me to build websites at the very beginning of the World Wide Web. I built the first Forfeiture Endangers American Rights website in 1995. Ours was one of the first non-profits with a website. We were given the “Top 5% of All Websites” award by Lycos in 1996. (That goes to show how small the internet was back then!) You can still view the 1996 FEAR website (and later versions) on the Wayback Machine.

Comparing it with Auto Comp, I used to think the marketing newsletter job I had afterwards taught me no useful knowledge. But I did learn how to write newsletters about subjects that didn’t matter to me, and how to do newsletter layout, even if it was with primitive tools. Looking back, that enabled me become the first FEAR newsletter editor, a volunteer job I did for FEAR before becoming a board member and later board president.

And amazingly, even the (boring) content of what we wrote about at the marketing publication company is starting to come in handy with my ecommerce business. And now here I am, in some small business way, managing inventory and physical distribution and creating computer databases to automate the process of managing my inventory of vintage hats for sale on Hatatorium Emporium.