The order of effects :: Part I.

In 2003, a physicist at M.I.T. named Richard Muller wrote an article entitled "The Physics Diet" (and later "The Physics of Gluttony"). The premise of the articles is that the first law of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, applies directly to losing weight. The first-order effect that makes the most difference is simple: calories in versus calories out. If there's a positive energy balance, you gain weight. If there's a negative energy balance, you lose weight. All things equal means a constant weight.

The weight loss business has flourished despite this relatively simple idea. Why? The first law of thermodynamics is hard. Going to bed hungry is hard. Tracking your calories in tandem with exercise is hard. Food is everywhere and it's cheap. It's a lot easier to overeat than to put on those damn thermal tights and freeze briefly rolling out of the driveway. The dieting industry knows this. Like a baseball pitcher with a sub-80mph fastball, there's way more nuance and room for interpretation on edges, rather than in the fat part of the plate.

The result is a cacophony of second-order (and lower) effects being brought to the forefront, egged on by the impatience and desperation of those unwilling or unable to exhibit some willpower or to see exercise as something other than menial labour that must be gotten over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. You hear about these effects in percentage form all the time in "news" snippets from your chosen ideological information outfit, and no doubt there's a little validity to some of them. But, you have to weigh things based on the order of effect. Me drinking as much cold water as possible or only eating things at certain times does not outstrip "calories in versus calories out" over the long term as far as the effect it will have on my weight. Period.

Are there nuances and other effects, as well as health and nutritional matters, that will skew things from being a simple math equation? Of course. Just the amount of water retention, piss, and fecal matter you're carting around on any given day will turn a gentle downward curve into a jagged series of peaks and valleys if you zoom in tight on the data by weighing yourself everyday. This makes things a little nebulous if you're not taking a relaxed, healthy, long range view.

Nebulous entities breed internet discussion. Wildly. If things are unclear about why weight loss might go in fits and starts or why random, seemingly healthy people develop cancer...well then an army of bored souls can say whatever they want within the grayness, sticking in a finite red push pin. Muscle magically turning into fat and vice versa. Muscle evaporating faster than fat. Aspartame magically turning into sugar. Carbohydrates killing swaths of people. Fat killing swaths of people. Arguments ad nauseam.

This could only happen in a land of plenty like the First World. Now there are legions of folks wearing their dietary dogma on their sleeve, completely outstripping whatever supposed benefits they gain over people who "just don't get it" by living with a low rumble of stress, thinking about such things for an inordinate amount of time each day and microfiche-ing through the mental flowchart to make sure it jives with dogma "X" before loading their fork. All of this is usually perpetuated by someone selling something. Seriously, give it rest. I can say this because I lived it myself at one time.

We want the "best" thing/method/plan now, for fear of wasting our time, making sure that we maximize every possible effect down to the parallel of drinking only cold water to burn a few more calories. This is often done at the expense of day-to-day common sense. Looking in the rearview, after always looking for something that will really make you content - this time for sure, you'll see a whole lot of books, gadgets, food, and time composting in the rubbish heap. It's like spending your time on a rare moment away from work behind a digicam screen to insure thorough Flickr documentation of your freedom, so you won't forget what a great(?) time you had - and sharing with people who, for the most part, don't really care that much - instead of just enjoying it then, maybe taking a picture or two, and remembering most of it later. Good enough.

So how does this all apply to bicycles?

I don't see the bicycle industry as sinister or trying to take advantage of anxiety. Far from it. The business is full of intelligent people striving to do good and spread the positivity they've garnered from cycling. Even the most cynical and jaded have had at least some inkling of the euphoria that can come from riding a bike sometime in their life.

The order of effects plays into the cycling world too, though. Like folks in the First World who have a dizzying array of choices from tall and long grocery aisles, the cycling world has resilient components, great bearings, easy adjustability, stuff that stays tight, and a myriad of other things that we take for granted now that a cyclocrosser rolling on Endricks and rat traps in the 1950s would fall to his knees and grovel for.

As alluded to in the "Fuctionality as inspiration" posts, the curve of development flattens out as basic problems are solved, leaving brows furrowed in deep thought while trying to come up with reasons to buy new, "better" stuff. One then marches downward on the order of effects list, genuinely trying to make things better but in less quantifiable ways. There are all kinds of ways to do this, but most often it comes with trying to make something stiffer or lighter or both. That's all well and good. Unfortunately though, this striving comes with some baggage in the form of confusing new standards, proprietary stuff that might not be supported down the road, new oddball tools, etc. It's distinctly quiet when talk of long term service life (or even long term existence) comes up.

The cycling that I love and know best (and has grown more and more popular over the last decade) consists of long rides and lower average speeds, though not pedestrian. It comes in many forms: brevets, gran fondos, long MTB races, mixed surface touring, bikepacking, etc. As distances get further and service hours are bunched together in bigger blocks, you can't rely as much on frequent maintenance so it requires you to be a little more circumspect about what you put on your bike.

For the riding most people do, I feel that the benefits from adopting the ethos of the long slow distance ideology are wide-ranging and would alleviate some stress. There are a few areas on the bike where it's easy to fall into that trap of striving for things to be just that little bit better, despite the weak benefit/$ ratio.

The order of effects has to be examined more closely, and I'll do that in Part II.


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