Doing things differently

Doing things differently is hard. Some years ago I read about the Dvorak keyboard layout somewhere and have always wanted to try it, but have never found a physical keyboard with such layout.

I believe in change, or at least I want to believe in change. I also believe in Muscle Memory. It just takes some time to do the same thing over and over until your brain rewires itself and what took some real effort to achieve becomes “normal”, so to say.

And it’s not like I’m discovering something new or anything. I remember learning to type on a PC by myself, as everyone I know, and it took me quite some time to “memorize” where each key was located at, but I eventually did, so I thought “why not give Dvorak a try?” and here I am.

Currently my typing skills are about the same I had ten years ago, being able to type actually quite fast as a consequence of me trying to express myself as fast as possible on IM and chat, both good examples of events that might push you to learn by doing. After all, didn’t we all (or at least my generation) find the way to type SMS really fast until a couple of years ago using only the twelve keys of a cellphone? And even further, really old cellphones didn’t have the T9 software in them, and still we found the way to communicate, or at least entering the names for the address book.

So, the muscle memory… It’s what helps us do everyday actions without giving it much thought. Simple actions like brushing your teeth, playing a musical instrument or video games (using a controller without looking at it, more like knowing and feeling it altogether).

I recently learned how to properly ride a motorcycle. My first experience was in 2002 with an automatic 50cc , which not only tops at about 60 Km/h but also pretty much drives by itself, so it was somehow “safe”.

Last year, around way, a friend of mine let me ride her motorcycle, a 125cc semi-automatic Suzuki. The “semi” part implies a big difference, challenge or advantage, depending on how you see it: Although there is no clutch, as in most motorcycles, there is a gearbox, so it adds an extra something to the regular throttle-brake routine. As with my first experience, there were no further instructions besides “wear the helmet” and “shift up and down when it ‘asks’ you to”.

So there I was, alone with the bike at a main avenue, rush hour, and three hours to do whatever I wanted. One of the greatest things of a clutchless motorcycle was that the engine wasn’t going to shut off randomly due to my clumsiness and lack of skill. And it was easy: Start the engine in neutral Shift up to the first gear pushing the foremost shift lever Twist the throttle

That was it. Throttle, brakes and shifting gears as needed (“when it ‘asks’ you to”). It took me only two minutes to get going. I spent the rest of the evening riding just for the joy of it, and it felt good.

Things got bit more complex with my brother’s motorcycle, which not only had a clutch but the gear scheme is a little different to what I was used to: Instead of the natural N-1-2-3-4 transition I knew from my friend’s bike, this one had the standard 1-N-2-3-4-5, which gave me a little trouble the first couple of times until I got used to it. It took me longer, though, since I let go the clutch too fast before twisting the throttle, resulting in the engine shutting off several times on the first half an hour, but again, some practice (and dealing with the pain that the clutch leaves in the left hand) you start doing it without thinking.

And yes, without thinking. Free of the need to think about something and doing it by default while leaving the brain and it’s resources more room to perform other tasks at the same time, almost like a daemon would in computer jargon, which lead us back to muscle memory.

Now that I don’t need to think when to release the throttle, pull the clutch and shift gears as I speed up on the road, I can appreciate more the experience as a whole while being more aware of my surroundings (other vehicles, streetlights or alternative routes). And that’s what I expect will happen after the little experiment I will be doing for a week (or more if needed) which started with the writing of this post, of typing exclusively with the Dvorak layout on my iPad until achieving a decent speed and typing without thinking, just as I did (and can still do) using a 12-key layout.

That means I will have to install this Dvorak Cydia tweak on my iPhone as well.