Bicycles and Rationality

Meditation on akrasia using bicycle repair as example
topics: philosophy, personal
created: 02 Feb 2009; modified: 27 Mar 2019; status: finished; confidence: emotional; importance: 3

The last bike I actually owned was more than a decade ago, and I’d long outgrown it. Since then I have shamelessly leeched off my two sisters, using their bikes whenever circumstances mandated. They did not mind, since they rode their bikes even less. The elder of the two bikes suited me much better, but it wasn’t until I graduated St. Anthony’s High School and began attending the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York that I perceived a need to use a bike frequently.

I should perhaps explain some things. RIT was very much a campus-oriented college: you stayed in the dorms for your freshman and sophomore years, and then moved onto to apartments for the succeeding years since you would often be out in co-ops for local corporations (these co-ops were part of the degree requirements). So cars were certainly common enough on campus, and I did come to know some commuters and count them as friends; but RIT was certainly not a majority or entirely commuting institution.

Now, the academic buildings were all clustered together on one end of the campus, and the dorms (and gyms and small stores and refectories) were likewise clustered on the opposite end. This distinction was neat and simple, but the campus was large and open. The central paved path which linked the two was known as the “Quarter-Mile”, and that name as no boast—as measured from the sundial in the heart of the dorms to the Infinity sculpture (which everyone considered a defective sundial) at the heart of the academic buildings, it was easily half a mile. And this was a trek students might make several times a day. In a particularly badly scheduled quarter (RIT eschewing semesters), I might undertake the round-trip 2 or 3 times a day. I say all this as background so you might understand why bikes experienced a considerable jump in my esteem.

Well, I began attending and discovered the miseries of the quarter-mile. It is no light thing to have to leave 15 minutes before class, walk swiftly the entire way, and then discover you are late by a minute or two anyway—much less to do it repeatedly or with heavily laden bags. I accepted it as my lot; I had experienced worse in the Boy Scouts (did I not work a summer on a Scout reservation in which I spent the entire day walking around on chores? Is it not true that every time I visited a local reservation, I would inevitably be assigned a campsite at the foot of the formation aptly named ‘Cardiac Hill’?).

One day, I had brought a large quantity of Post-It notes in appropriate colors and gone into another dorm to the topmost level. A floor below, there was a large assemblage of Post-It notes in the shape of the Apple Corporation logo. I felt it a grievous affront that there was no Linux logo up there (this feeling makes sense, I assure you, in the geeky environs of RIT). Thus, I had secretly resolved to depict Tux the Penguin on a window above. When I arrived, another fellow was in the lounge. He was working on a Computer Science programming project (a simple recreation of Battleship). While I took a certain interest in it—I had never seen anyone else’s solution to that project—I had already taken that course and so soon began wishing he’d just leave already. It was 3AM. Surely he could not focus on the intricacies of Java programming for much longer. By 5AM, I conceded that apparently he could, and also abandoned hopes of secrecy. I began the great work. Eventually, he took an interest in it, and began assisting me. The next morning, bright and early, a pudgy penguin beamed out over the grounds, clearly visible from a good portion of the Quarter-Mile. As it happens, Tux lasted only a quarter before he and the Apple were taken down, forwhy I wot not. (This removal scuppered my plans for further logos like the FreeBSD daemon and the OpenBSD blowfish.)

The upshot of this digression is that he and I became friends of a sort, and often as we were leaving the refectory, he would mount his bicycle and ride away easily as I pounded the pavement. This awoke great envy, and soon I began noticing during my commutes all the bicyclists (whom I had taken little heed of before) and began taking note of people on the floor would leave only 5 minutes before a class as they drove or rode. The worm turned, and soon envy to hate—hatred of those lazy bicyclists who glide along snootily, weaving in and out of the crowd, leisurely taking the loopy and scenic routes that we poor drudging pedestrians could not afford the time to. Is it any wonder that the injustice of my walking began to rankle, or that I grew increasingly obsessed with procuring a bicycle?

It is perhaps easy to wonder why these emotions could incubate so long and be so strong (I felt them vividly, I assure you) but have such notable lack of issue? I would go home during breaks, gaze longingly at the bikes in the garage, and return to RIT as bicycle-less as ever. Why did I never bring one back? True, I flew back and forth which certainly precludes bringing one with me. But shipment can be arranged for even something as unwieldy as your average mountain bike. Or why did I not simply buy one there? There were posters advertising bikes of students at such reasonable sums as $50, and certainly there were bike stores within reach of the buses. Why did I simply not steal one, if I could not bring or buy one? There are always unlocked bikes on campus, and cameras are easy to defeat; certainly quite a few bicycles were always being stolen at RIT.

I cannot really answer this. Eventually, in my second year, I did bring with me a bike (when it was dead easy to just lash it to the back of a van). And how I suffered for it! I do not care to recall the details, but a loose front wheel with but a single retaining bolt, brakes rusted open by winter storms and freezes, deflated tires, and a weekend of physical agony twisting open a bolt which had been rusting in place since the bike’s creation—these all combined to ameliorate the real pleasure I expected and did in fact gain from riding to classes. It was indeed a pleasure to circumvent the rather pedestrian foot paths and take roundabout wooded paths, and to measure commutes in units an order of magnitude less (1-9 minutes, not 10-25). But I did pay for it.

I’ve often pondered a strange reluctance on my part to avoid improving an objectively bad situation, especially if it involves any expenditure of money on my part. My parents often complained about this. They would point that objectively my miserly ways have saved up a fair bit of money, and that a nice new bike with perfectly safe brakes would be only $200 or so, and that then I would cease wearing out my sisters’ bikes, and then $200 is a small sum compared to an emergency room visit; or they ask why, if my laptop computer really is so old and its hinges so very broken, and it is generally inadequate to the tasks I set it, I do not simply take $1000 and buy a capable new one or purchase components of a desktop computer and build myself a very capable computer.

Indeed, I myself wonder about my inaction in some things: why I do not take my money and place it into stocks or bonds. Objectively, I know inflation is eroding the value of my money at 2, 3, 4% or more every year and that the bank’s interest is certainly not compensating for this; I know that I am losing money for keeping it in a bank account. I believe all these objective facts, and yet I act irrationally. I find this perplexing, I do not really understand how I can profess to seek to act rationally and yet act so irrationally (even when I know exactly how irrationally I am acting). I’ve written this essay, and yet I all the while known that when I finish it I will go home and not lift a finger to remedy anything mentioned herein.

I read, once, that a reason intelligent people deceive themselves even more than stupider people is because they are so used to having the right answer and are capable of devising more and better rationalizations for those beliefs they have randomly come to believe.

See also