AT LARGE: Automatic for the people

AT LARGE: Automatic for the people

I'm not accustomed to driving a car with a manual transmission. When I first got my driver's licence I had lessons on a manual, so that I would be properly qualified to drive any car that I happened to need to drive - then I spent a dozen years not needing to drive a manual and therefore forgetting all I knew.

This week I need to drive a manual. It's a long story, but basically I won the use of a Porsche Boxster for a day in a trivia competition. Why I entered a competition to win a prize of such dubious utility is a question best answered some decades from now by my therapist. Since winning, I've paid for extra lessons in manual driving and rented a cheap manual car for the weekend rather than use the Porsche for practice - so my "prize" has set me back a couple of hundred dollars before I even get to use it. Again, ask my therapist.

Anyway, I've spent a weekend operating a clutch, handbrake-starting and selecting gears based on the angle of the road - all stuff I don't normally need to know how to do.

And I know exactly what you're thinking: it's "useful" to know this stuff. "Real" drivers know this stuff. It gives you more "control".

That's geek talk. Windows users say exactly the same things to Mac users all the time. Linux users are even worse. Windows users, you see, are unfazed by cryptic error messages about the fate of thingmewhatsit.dll and registry errors and so forth. Their machines behave in odd ways, but they know what the problem is, they know what it means and they know how to fix it. They reinstall this, edit that, swap out a motherboard if necessary and start again.

Mac people, on the other hand, don't generally understand this stuff. Much as a driver used to automatic transmissions has little need to understand how gear-changing actually works, Mac people (I am, of course, generalising) have relatively little curiosity about what's going on behind the user interface. Their machines do unpredictable and odd things too, but the nature of the operating system is such that they don't get the weird error messages - or if they do, they ignore them. Nothing a good old restart won't fix, right?

Windows users insist that the ability to edit the registry is "useful", that "real" computer users understand the inner workings of their machines, and that knowing what esoteric parameters do offers them more "control". Mac people like their machines to be easy.

You'd be amazed, as I was bunny-hopping about this weekend, stalling and making hideous screeching noises, how many of my friends made exactly the same observation: the Mac's like an automatic, Windows is like a manual. Whether the simile would have occurred to them had I not been a notorious Mac-head, I do not know.

One particularly geeky friend said that a manual was like Linux. I disagree. Linux is like trolling scrapyards to find pieces of old (but reliable) cars and putting them together with your bare hands to produce something that works and is beautiful and will never ever break down, once you've got it going. There's a sense of pride that comes with being able to do that, and I respect it.

The big question is, is this knowledge useful? I have spent a dozen years, as I said, without occasion to drive a manual car. I may never do it again. By the time I have a need for this skill again, I may well have forgotten it.

You could argue that I should nurture it. I should go out and buy a manual car so that I render the skill of manipulating a gearbox useful in my life. Perhaps I should. Perhaps I should spend more time tinkering with a Windows PC (there's one around here somewhere). Back in the 1980s, I taught myself to understand and edit PostScript code so that I could improve the appearance of my essays (the word processor I used output very shonky PostScript). Should I keep doing that, or just get a modern word processor and a better printer? Sometimes the old ways aren't the best after all.

What it comes down to is this: I've spent a dozen years as a driver thinking about where I want to go and how I want to get there. I've spent one weekend thinking about what gear I need to be in to get around the next corner, and what manipulations of pedals are required to get me there.

What's the more useful skill?

Matthew JC. Powell reckons a well-worn clutch smells just like fresh bread. Alternate similes to

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