Systemic Conflict

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I’m in the middle of a terrific book by Daniel Kahneman entitled Thinking Fast And Slow.

This book was given to me by my good friend Keiki, and for good reason.  It’s changing the way I think about consciousness.

It also provides hard evidence for something that I’ve suspected for a long time. Namely that my conscious mind is not so instrumental in a majority of the decisions that I make.

Kahneman breaks down human cognition into two systems. “System 1” is fast, intuitive, low effort, and almost entirely unconscious. “System 2” is analytical, high effort, editorial, and more in line with our general conception of the conscious mind.

Importantly, “system 1” requires much less mental effort and is thus instrumental in the majority of the decisions that we make (It’s kind of like autopilot). And it makes our decisions for us, without us even knowing that it’s doing so.

On some level because we are lazy (or efficiency prone?), “system 1” is pretty much in control most of the time. And this is the source of much of our irrationality.

And I suspect this relates back to early retirement theory, in the following way:

Because the pursuit of early retirement taps into a fundamental human desire for freedom, by pursuing this goal, our “system 1” is in someway fundamentally altered. (Which is probably a good thing, if change is what we’re after, since “system 1” is the one calling most of the shots.)

Which all sounds pretty abstract and pie-in-the-sky. So please allow me to provide an example from my personal life to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I would like to buy a bike.

More specifically, I would like to buy a bike, and start commuting by bike to work.

This is one of Mr. Money Mustaches main prescriptions, and I take him at his word on this one.

The idea of bike commuting appeals to me for the following reasons.

  • I notice that when I exercise, I am happier.
  • I like the idea of incorporating exercise into my daily routine, as opposed to, say, joining a gym.
  • I like the idea of using my own body to propel me, as opposed to unnecessarily using greenhouse gas emitting fuels.
  • I’ve noticed that driving, particularly in traffic, makes me pretty unhappy.
  • It’s a smart move economically. (Since biking is cheaper than driving.)

So you could say I’m pretty bullish on this whole biking experiment. In fact, I’m raring to go.

So for the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing some research on bike options.

And here is the list of qualities that I’ve decided that I want in a bike:

  • It should be comfortable.
  • It should be fun to ride.
  • It should be able to accept fenders and bike bags for the winter when I’ll be commuting in the rain.
  • It should have drop bars. (I just like the feel of these more than flat bars.)
  • It should be fast-ish
  • It should be cheap.

And I’ve literally test ridden 10 or 11 different bikes. And I’ve been perusing craigslist to see what the secondhand market looks like, too.

And there were differences between all of the bikes. Disc brakes versus caliper brakes, flat bars versus drop bars, different gearing systems, and frame materials etc.

But all of the bikes felt pretty much the same to me. There were small differences, but nothing to write home about.

And this fungible quality of all the bikes was quite comfortable for me. For if there is one central rule to my new ethic is that I should spend less money, and save more. So if all the bikes were the same, decision would become easy. I would simply choose the cheapest one.

And then I test drove the 11th bike. And it felt completely different. It seemed to fit my body perfectly. Riding it felt incredibly comfortable and efficient. The road felt smooth. And peddling was even more fun. (Which of course all could have been the placebo effect.  I certainly wasn’t blinded to the price.)


(These tulips bloomed the minute the bike parked there.)

Of course, this bike was about 50 to 100% more expensive than all of the other bikes that I had previously checked out.

I can afford it easily. But that’s never really the question when you’re an early retirement enthusiast, is it? The question is if the extra money that it would take to buy this bike would deliver enough additional utility (happiness) to justify not investing it in the market. (The implicit assumption being that investing in the market is equivalent to a making a payment on my future financial independence.)

And this tension between the desire for the fancy bike, and the desire to stay true to my own newly adopted moral system is palpable. And I can feel the friction bubbling beneath the surface of my mind.

And don’t worry, I know how ridiculous this all sounds. This is the very definition of a first world problem, which is to say no problem at all.

But the friction and irritation remains.

And if I try to define this conflict occurring in my new “system 1” that both wants pretty things, and wants not to want pretty things, my “system 2” comes up with the following pros and cons for buying the bike.


  • I should buy a quality bike, take good care of it and keep it for a long time.  It’ll be cheaper in the end this way.
  • Having a bike that feels good, makes it more likely that I will ride it every day.
  • I should not be a fundamentalist. Moderation in all things is better, including frugality.
  • The additional money is a good investment in my own happiness.


  • I am just being a soft, fancy pants, foolishly trying to buy myself happiness with pretty toys.
  • Mr. Money Mustache himself has a $400 bike that he uses to tow refrigerators around, and brave snowstorms.
  • This is an excellent opportunity to build up my frugality muscles.
  • To buy the bike is a cop-out.
  • Buying the fancy bike is not “moderation,” it is a complete lack of discipline.
  • After basic needs are met, happiness does not come from things.  That’s for sure.

And to be honest spelling it all out is not really that helpful to me making my decision.(And fortunately, the stakes could not be lower.)

But the interesting part, I think, is that somewhere in my gray matter, below the level of my consciousness, my two “system 1’s” are probably fighting it out as we speak. Which I will take, on faith, as evidence that this journey towards early retirement is subtly changing my own mental make up in a positive way.

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6 Responses to “Systemic Conflict”

  1. Robert July 1, 2014 at 5:10 am #

    As a longtime recreation cyclist and once commuter, I have a few thoughts. First, buying quality is definitely worth it. But there is a sweet spot. What price is your favorite bike? In my opinion, if buying new, anything less than $400 these days is probably suspect (for a drop bar style multispeed bike). Around $1000 is probably the sweet spot for a basic high quality road bike. Stay away from the Walmart/department store type bikes; they are junk, even with brand names. When you buy a low end bike, you ensure yourself loads of time-consuming or expensive (or both) maintenance and adjustments. Derailleurs are sensitive and cheap ones don’t stay tuned. A friend of mine bought a cheap department store bike with a name brand; the spokes pulled out of the rim within 6 months of light use; the rear derailleur bent without a crash; the brakes wouldn’t stay adjusted–it was overall a miserable experience and he learned that paying $150 didn’t save him anything as he now has to buy another bike.
    One of the most important factors is bike fit. The bike needs to fit your body, and you won’t know until extended use. (How long is your commute? Do you think you’ll do extended recreational riding as well on this bike?). Do your research on this or get a professional to help you size properly (it isn’t just the frame–it is the crank arm length, the seat positioning, the stem, the handlebar width, etc.).
    I encourage you to think about a quality bike bought used but in your size, if you can pick one up at reasonable price. Think of it as a disposable “tuition” for bike commuting. Use it for a year and learn what you like/don’t like. Plan to sell it after a year (or donate) and buy the bike you by that point know how to choose optimally. I really doubt that you can foresee right now all that you will eventually want in a commuting bike.
    If I lived in a rainy climate like Portland, I would be thinking about maintenance a lot. I hate cleaning bikes! But it goes with the territory. For a commuting bike in that climate, I might consider an internal gear hub or if flat terrain without high winds, a single speed. It would be nice to avoid cleaning/lubing the drive system all the time.
    Don’t forget that (for longer commutes, at least) clothing is also important for overall comfort.
    As for justifying the price for an early retirement focused person–just remember your olive oil, cat and pizza oven. Sometimes it is worth it. If it were me, this would be one of those times. But it may not be for you. A used trial bike will help you learn.
    Well…gotta run. My wife is reminding me it is time to join our bike club’s ride. (On our $11,000 tandem. LOL! As a bicycling buddy told me decades ago, how many hobbies let you buy the best in the world for a few thousand dollars? I guess price depends on your frame of reference).

    • Miles Dividend M.D. July 1, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

      Hot damn! $11,000? How many miles have you put on that ferrari? Must be a thing of beauty.

      Your words of wisdom on purchasing a bike are very welcome, and mirror much of my own preliminary research. Your level of detail and useful insight is above and beyond, however (as usual.)

      I’ve been looking in the $600-850 range and bike 11 is $1300. It is the Salsa Vaya 3 touring bike and is linked in the post, if you’re interested.

      As usual I’ve gone into my paralysis by analysis mode, which I find very useful for avoiding impulse purchases.

      • Robert July 2, 2014 at 10:24 am #

        This is our tandem. We’ve had it about 3 years and do about 5000 miles/year. I bought it while still working (wasn’t that a clever move?! LOL) and expect to have it for a long time. I bought our first tandem used for $2200 about 20 years ago to ride with my young kids. After they grew, my wife started riding with me (about 6 years ago). Once we were sure this was something we enjoyed doing together, we went for a new one optimized to our needs. It has S&S couplers for travel (that adds a couple grand right there), and has an upper mid-range component set. Believe it or not, this was not top-of-the-line. Those are in the $20k+ range.

        Incidentally, this illustrates my argument to you about trying a used bike first. In this case, the used bike cost more but also informed us on a much more expensive purchase than you are looking at, so well worth it. We knew what ride characteristics we were looking for when we went shopping for the new one. We bought this for one of the same reasons you like the Vaya–it rides smoothly. In particular, when riding on chip and seal asphalt roads (which we have many of in Texas) it absorbs road shock very well compared to many other bikes we tested, especially the aluminum ones and those with more aggressive frame geometries (more on that later). When we are out riding with our bike club (the rest of them on single bikes), when we get on a really bad chip and seal road we smile to ourselves as they bellyache about the road; in fact, we use the opportunity to pour it on and speed up, making them suffer! (They get back at us in other conditions, like side winds).

        The Vaya pictured in your blog and linked page appears to be the Vaya Travel with optional S&S couplers, not the Vaya 3 you are looking at. The Vaya appears to be a bike targeted at bike tourists who plan some off-paved-road riding. It would make a decent commuter bike but probably not my personal choice. It all depends on what specifically you plan to do with it, though, and if you like it, fine.

        My recommendation remains, though: buy a used bike and learn from that experience before deciding what you really want. For instance, will you want to use combo ride/public transit? Does your public transit have bike racks on buses (I assume so since Portland is a top-rated bicycling city), or do you want a folding bike to carry with you onto a bus or train? What about storage at your workplace? Do you need folding? Lightweight to carry up stairs? (The Vaya is a heavy bike). Do you need to lock up outdoors, in which case do you want a “beater bike” that won’t be stolen or that is less of a concern when ravaged by weather? etc. Then all the other questions I asked earlier, including what other kind of riding you might enjoy, maintenance habits/needs, etc. Many questions. You won’t know all the questions, let alone the answers, until after you’ve ridden for awhile.

        The Vaya has a low end Shimano component set, which is still OK quality. If you really have a lot of rain, though, and the bike is exposed, then you’ll be doing a lot of regular maintenance. Again, for commuting, you might think about internal gears or none, depending on terrain. (I’m speaking for myself, but maintenance is the biggest obstacle to my riding; I enjoy riding in rain for the experience itself, but hate cleaning the bike afterwards, so try to avoid it as much as possible. If I had to commute in it a lot, this corollary ‘feature’ would discourage me from riding).

        Not sure why exactly you liked the Vaya so much. You said that when riding it “the road felt smooth”. And you said all the other bikes felt similar to each other while this was different. Without knowing what else you rode, I’ll speculate on why: Though this is starting to change, especially in urban areas with bike-hip populations like Portland, most bike shops find that customers prefer fast racing bikes–knock-offs of what the pros like Lance Armstrong ride/rode. (This is silly since many of those customers aren’t racing or even riding fast, but that is another discussion, related to why some people need to drive Porsches around town). These racing bikes have the latest carbon fiber, ultra-light, etc., materials. But also, critically, the frame geometry of a racing bike. Steep frame angles lead to quickness/responsive handling, but also to less stability (“twitchiness”)–all good for racing but not for loaded touring. The steep angles also lead to road roughness directly transmitting to the rider, compared to shallow angles (this is pretty intuitive, if you imagine jumping up and down on a steel pole that is perpendicular to the ground vs. one that is angled). Furthermore, frame materials and designs on racing bikes used to aim for less compliant frames that were “stiff” so that torque transmitted to the cranks didn’t result in side-to-side frame movement but transmitted directly into forward progress. Again, desirable on a racing bike, though resulting in a rougher ride–a trade-off racers are willing to make (though happy to avoid it if they can, hence the difference between a really stiff time trial bike and a road racing bike for long stage races). The trade-off between stiffness and comfort is pretty much unavoidable in traditional materials such as Cr-Mo frames, though optimizing tubing sets and frame geometry help achieve the best compromise for a specific use (even in racing, there are differences, such as between criterium racing and time-trialing and general road racing). With newer carbon-fiber composite frames, the ability to align the fibers during layup to optimize compliance in particular directions allows to further minimize the tradeoffs between stiffness and comfort. i.e., you can stiffen against side-to-side and yet allow some softness in the vertical direction.

        Now, the bike you are looking at is a long way from a racing machine. Besides being very heavy (2x the weight), it has the geometry of a touring bike, i.e., the frame on the Vaya has very relaxed angles. (The 60cm frame, for instance has 72°/72° head/seat tube angles). This will give it stability and comfort. Those are also appropriate (though not necessary) for commuting. It has traditional Cr-Mo tubing which can be quite “soft”/compliant. The wider tires also contribute to a softer ride. All of these are probably why you like the feel of this bike on the road. I’m speculating, of course. Other differences, like the saddle, handlebar layout/tape, and overall bike fit contribute to one’s sense of comfort, but these can/should be adjusted for each bike to meet one’s specific body size/needs. More critical to get right initially is the frame.

        Anyway, if I’m on track, then knowing why you liked the Vaya may help you look at other options that would also have a good feel for you. For example, I think REI sells some traditional touring bikes that would probably have similar feel. i.e.,|pcrid|44322752080| Note the similar shallow frame angles and traditional Cr-Mo frame. It also has a traditional curved fork vs. the straight one of the Vaya. That works together with the shallow frame angles to give it a lot of ‘trail’ and thus stability (especially with front panniers) but also less responsiveness. (Note that less responsiveness is more relaxing, takes less attention–the bike tends to continue to go in the direction it is already going; good for touring, not good for criterium racing). The Novara has traditional brakes while the Vaya has disk brakes. There are pros/cons to each. I like disk brakes myself, though they do take a little more adjustment in my experience. In a wet climate, they offer the best stopping power vs. squeezing wet rims. But they are overkill for general commuting (whereas for mountainous terrain with a loaded bike they would be great). They are becoming more and more popular though. I’m not suggesting the Novara is better, btw. I’m just suggesting that if you try it you may find it has similar ride characteristics to the Vaya (vs. the stiffer/steeper angled racing bikes I’m speculating you rode before and found to be less comfortable and feeling the same). That would make you a better informed shopper.

        To further illustrate frame geometry, here is another example of this from Trek: Note the 73/71.8° angles (60 cm frame). Cr-Mo traditional frame too, with the fittings for touring gear. This bike is rather similar to the Novara. Now, compare that to Trek’s mainstay which is the bazillions of racing bikes you see in stores and on the street. Note that they sell ONE touring model and DOZENS of racing models. That’s what marketing and the public’s reaction to famous bike racers does, I think. But anyway, see for example, this road racing bike, the Madone 5.9: Note that the seat and head tube angles have steepened to 72.3 and 74°, respectively. Now look at the Speed Concept, a triathlon bike–basically a time trial bike–with its steep seat tube angle, with angles of 78 and 72.5°. While all three of these bikes have similar trail, the harshness of the ride will increase with the steepness of the frame angles.

        Time trial/triathlon racers race alone against the clock for a relatively short time and go all out for speed and efficiency; they go for the most aerodynamic position possible. Road racers like those that would ride the Madone have an entirely different riding style, and may ride day after day on the bike, needing more comfort. They can draft one another, riding in packs (the peloton), so aero position isn’t so critical and being more upright is not only more comfortable but allows better control in a pack and enhanced ability to monitor the other riders. But it is more than that. If you look at trail, the triathlon and touring bikes are both similar, while the Madone has lower trail. The converse is true for head tube angle, with the Madone having a higher angle than the other two. Thus, the Madone will be the most responsive (“twitchy”) while the other two will tend to go in a straight line. That is what you want on a time trial bike since you aren’t racing around a course with lots of turns or in a pack; you don’t want to waste energy concentrating on bike handling, but just relax your upper body as much as possible and focus on spinning those legs. It also is what you want on a touring bike. So even though these two bikes are for vastly different purposes, they share steering characteristics. The seat tube angle difference, however, puts the triathlete more on top of the crankset and leaning over the aero bars, vs. the touring bike; all else being equal, the steeper angle will also translate into more road shock transmission to the rider. Thus, while they share some steering characteristics, the touring bike will have a soft ride compared to a tri-bike.

        Trek also sells several commuting bikes. For example, Note the long trail and shallow seat/head tube angles (72.5°C). Thus, they have set this up much as one would a touring bike. Frame-wise, it is not so different from the Vaya. They have outfitted it with flat bars instead of dropbars, and there are many component differences, but the bikes are generally similar.

        If you get the frame science figured out to your taste, you can shop more intelligently on components, i.e., do you want fixed gear, internal hub, etc. All the other stuff. But…again…I think you should buy a used bike and THEN figure all this out.

        Now, as for internal hubs, you may remember the old 3-speed Sturmey-Archer internal hubs from your childhood “English bike” (at least I do–you may be too young for that!). You don’t see them around much anymore–everyone wants the sexy “racing bike” designs and thus derailleurs. The more gears the better, as manufacturers keep inflating the feature specs. But for many uses, 30 or even 10 gears aren’t needed. For commuting, a 3-speed internal hub might be just the ticket, depending on the situation. And now, you can get many more than 3 speeds in an internal hub. Internal hubs offer low maintenance compared to derailleur systems. And without a front derailleur, easier to put on a chainguard and protect your pants/socks from grease or getting caught (though I’d still tuck my pants into my sock or use pant clips). Rohloff makes a premium internal hub with an excellent reputation, but they aren’t inexpensive. They are popular with tandem owners and mountain bike/offroad bike owners, among others.

        You have a bike shop in Portland that specializes in these concepts. The combination of a Gates drive belt (rubber belt instead of greasy chain) and an internal hub provides a greaseless, quiet, low maintenance, rain-tolerant solution for commuters. We have a Gates belt as the timing chain on our tandem and love it. We have a conventional drivetrain otherwise, though, with chain and derailleurs. For a contrary view, read: The Gates belt does need to be properly aligned and if the bike frame isn’t aligned, that won’t happen. We don’t notice problems with ours. Still, I can appreciate the arguments made here, especially the tire changing one. These would be aspects I’d research further before going this route. (I also read a comment that in snow/ice conditions, buildup can slip the belt off).

        And then, for a truly radical design that won’t put grease on your trouser leg or socks, here is an interesting concept: I have no knowledge of how well this performs in practice, but it is a very intriguing concept to me for a commuting bike. A chainless bicycle that uses a drive shaft and internal gear hub. I’d be curious to know how well it holds up to high torque, what maintenance it requires, how much drag it puts on transmission, and how easy it is to change tires. 7 speeds isn’t enough for a general road racing bike but certainly could work for a commuting bike. Here is an old review from 2007: The comments give a variety of insights. Also here:

        Bicycling Magazine is the premier general purpose bicycling magazine in the U.S. They do equipment reviews periodically; take them with a grain of salt since I find them to be overwhelmingly positive and not engineering-focused, but you still get ideas from them. They highlight some commuter options here: is a good resource for picking informed brains (post a question and you’ll generally get good answers quickly) and also buying used stuff. They have a commuting section:

        Finally, you are blessed to live in one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the USA. You have an extensive bike culture in Portland. That includes many good shops including a number of used bicycle stores. Google it and check them out. You may find just the right starter bike there for a few hundred dollars. It may be less risky to do this than buying used on Craigslist from someone you don’t know, buying a bike that was crashed or damaged and you can’t tell. From a good used bike shop, the bike should have been overhauled and inspected. And they can help with bike fit, swapping components, etc.

        Sorry for the long ramble! Hope it helps.

        • Miles Dividend M.D. July 2, 2014 at 2:40 pm #


          Thanks for sharing your expertise.

          I will probably go to REI tonight to test drive their version of the touring bike that you linked.

          I think the biggest difference in the salsa relative to the other bikes (specialized secteur, Jamis Nova sport, surly, scott, etc) was that it had a steelframe. It also just felt more “comfortable” To sit on and incredibly easy to pedal and accelerate uphill.

          My current game plan is to test drive a few more bikes and then go back and test ride the salsa again. If it is still head and shoulders above the rest, I’ll probably buy it.

          As much as I like the idea of buying a cheap used bike and then upgrading when I know more, I really don’t enjoy shopping much and would hate to have to go through this all again next year!

          But craigslist remains an option.


  2. Bryan July 1, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    Long time reader, first time poster. Great blog!

    Anyway, our work office has recently moved from Boulder to Denver, CO. At our new office you can pay $85/mo to park in the garage OR you can park for FREE two blocks (at a minimum) away on the street. While walking to the office after parking my car this morning I was thinking about “big wins”. Focus on “big wins”. My “big win” is not paying the $85/mo. The parking garage is convenient, but walking a few blocks to and from the office is great for some of the reasons you mentioned above.

    So forget about the monetary value of the bike, the fact that you are riding a bike vs. driving a car IS the “big win”.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. July 1, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

      Thanks Bryan,

      I’m so glad you enjoy the blog.

      Your point about the “big win” is well taken. It is very reminiscent of some wisdom that Mr Money Mustache himself dropped on me that I wrote about in this post;

      I’ll enjoy my big win eventually, I’m sure of it. But now is the time for more hand wringing. (And test rides.)


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