Sunday, January 16, 2011

Why I love cycling computers

As Bike Snob often points out, most of us use our cycling computers to keep track of information that catalogs our mediocrity and has less relevance to the ultimate meaning of life than the pulsations of the supernova remnant at the heart of the Crab Nebula. Okay, I made that last bit up: as far as I know, Snob has never mentioned the Crab Nebula, which is what astronomers fear they will come to resemble if they visit Las Vegas and frequent an unlicensed brothel. However, as cycling is for me an activity done largely to justify my existence to myself, to unstrand my dopamine receptors, and to burn the calories contained in my daily indulgence of Twinkies washed down by unholy quantities of Guinness, the numbers that rack up on my computer have a direct bearing on how much pleasure I can find in the ultimate meaninglessness of life.

Then too, there’s the fact that I hate math. It would be possible, as Tim Krabbe points out in The Rider, to calculate the distance one rides by keeping track of the numbers of cranks and rotations of the wheels and then working some arcane math problems that in the Middle Ages would have exponentially increased one’s risk of being burned at the stake for witchcraft. Actually, in the Middle Ages, the math might have been impossible, as Newton and Leibniz had yet to invent calculus. However, disregarding anachronism, it turns out that my feelings about math are neatly summarized by a character in Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star:

“‘So you do mathematics?”
“‘I’m the one.”
“‘The very word strikes fear into my heart,” Evinrude said.
“‘It goes back to early schooling. The muffled terror of those gray mornings getting out of bed and going to school and opening up a mathematics textbook with its strange language and letters for numbers and theorems to memorize . . . math struck terror. Everything about it. The sound of the words. The diagrams and formulas. The look of the book. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that humans actually do mathematics, considering what’s involved. It’s like a branch of learning in outer space.’”

So there you have it. If for no other reason, humankind’s ventures into outer space before many of us were born were worthwhile just for the simple reason that they encouraged advances in miniature electronics that led to powerful microcomputers that can be manufactured at ridiculously low cost in China and shipped to this country and mounted on my bike handlebars to tell me how many bottles of “Irish” beer manufactured in Canada I can consume and still fit into my cycling shorts. Three cheers for the military-industrial complex!

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