BAN #151: If you can't read a sundial, then stop complaining about millennials

September 23, 2019   Issue #151

[Saturn image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute / Gordan Ugarkovic]

Subscribers will never be obsolete.

Apropos of nothing

Not everything needs to be themed

Every now and again, I see something on Twitter that sounds right, but when you think about it more deeply it turns out to be wrong. And yes, I know, it’s Twitter, so it’s full of demonstrably wrong things. But in this case I mean a relatively benign opinion you might agree with at first, but which, in my own opinion, falls apart after analysis.

To wit:

Millennials and ones younger than them are an easy target, it seems, attacked by people my age and older. These attacks are usually extremely ironic given that so many stereotypes about young folks are due to the destruction wreaked by boomers.

But in this case the complaint seems different. How can young people not know how to read a clock? How dumb are they? Or perhaps more fairly, how have we let them down so badly educationally?

However, I have what may be an unpopular opinion: Who cares?

I don’t care if a kid can read an analog clock or not. It’s a useful skill, sure, but is it critical? It’s obvious that digital clocks are everywhere, including on your phone. The need to read a clock face is dwindling. Sure, you see clocks in architecture and such, but is it really a life or death skill these days?

Let me put it this way: Can you read a sundial? No? Wow, the ghosts of Archimedes and Hypatia are laughing at you.

The point here is an obvious one: Technology changes, and we change our abilities with it. If I handed you a dialup modem could you use it? Do you even have a working landline port in your house?

I remember reading an essay (by Asimov, I think…?) about how Roman numerals are a useless thing to teach people. His overall point is correct, but I disagree somewhat in the sense that it’s of some curiosity how ancient peoples used numbers, and something worth teaching kids. It really shows you how important the invention of 0 was! I remember in grade school learning some cuneiform during our unit on ancient cultures. We used popsicle sticks and clay to make the different markings, and we all learned to appreciate just how big a deal the invention of writing was.

So teaching some things we no longer need or do can be important… but do you really want to teach obsolete skills as if they have an actual impact in our own ability to move through the day?

I understand the feeling of something in my own life fading away as tech moves on. It’s hard to see things evolving when it’s something dear to you, but try to think ahead. Look at cars: There will come a day when manual transmissions are long gone. I imagine when crankless cars came around fuddy duddies poopooed them, too. In more modern times, are manual transmissions really that necessary, or are they more of an affectation?

Think bigger. It occurred to me just the other day that gas stations may disappear in the next few decades. I certainly hope so! When my daughter is my age, will she tell kids about the time she had to stop every few hundred miles (“You used miles back then?”) to put complex and highly dangerous organic compounds into a holding vessel located under the seats of her car so that they could be violently oxidized and converted into mechanical energy used for compressing pistons? How will those kids react?

So kids today can’t read a clock face. OK. They don’t generally need to, any more than you need to crank up your car.

Things change. Change can be hard. But don’t project your own inertia as a failing of those who come after you. It’s not fair. And remember that in a few years you’ll be relying on them to explain some new tech you need.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Ride along with a flyover video of Saturn’s rings. From Fridays post. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, left image processed by Ian Regan. ]

Monday September 16, 2019: Remember Tabby's Star? It may have a friend... and maybe lots of them

Tuesday September 17, 2019: Record breaker: Astronomers find the most massive neutron star known. Probably the most massive one ever.

Wednesday September 18, 2019: Boyajian's Star: Could its bizarre behavior be due to an evaporating exomoon?

Thursday September 19, 2019: Red dwarfs: Tiny, faint, and loaded with planets

Friday September 20, 2019: Take a stunning 250,000-kilometer-long video tour of Saturn's rings

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!