Monday, March 10, 2014

Trolling For Hate: Bad Justifications and Buying Cheap Stuff

I listen to about a dozen podcasts of various topics (new favorite: 99% Invisible by Roman Mars). On three separate podcasts there were similar issues about expensive tools and gear. On Wood Talk #168  Mark, Matt, and Shannon did a single topic show on expensive tools. On the Knife Journal Ep.27 Podcast Kyle Ver Steeg had an eloquent and hilarious rant about Mora knives. And then on the Pen Addict #94 Brad had a little commentary on the sad state of mainstream pens. All of these sentiments pointed to one thing--a general preference for nicer stuff. All of this got the wheels whirring and here is my take.

In gear, Nutnfancy is THE big voice. His opinion shifts markets and alters product designs. But he focuses very heavily on the low to mid end of the market. Few non-gun items he reviews are more than $100. A vanishingly small number cost more than $400. That means that the universe of items is under $400. But those of us that have been interested in gear for a while know that there is virtually no limit to what you can spend. Jim Skelton and his YouTube channel are populated by multi-kilobuck knives.

It’s at this point in the discussion most people say: to each his own. And I agree with that to a certain extent, but I want to push back a little. That idea, if taken literally, is kinda dumb. There are certain purchasing decisions that are just irrational, and "to each his own" is the mantra of the mindless.

Let's start with a simple example. You go to Store A and they have the Cold Steel Mini AK47 for sale for $99.99.

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You go to Store B and they have the knife on sale for $59.99. Clearly, to each his own doesn't work here. Buying from Store A, all other things being equal, is just stupid. We all see that. But really there is a lot of this going on.

I started this site so there was a systematic scored evaluation of the gear I like. I find it helpful. Just like I found it helpful reading reviews written by Robert Parker, of Wine Advocate fame, critical product evaluations are, in essence, about distinguishing good stuff from bad. Why bother reading any of this if "to each his own" is all that matters?

Let's take another example, perhaps a bit more challenging one. Let's compare the G10 Drifter to the SS Drifter. These two knives, when critically evaluated, are similar, but the G10 model is better. Yes, I wrote it. The G10 model is just better. Why? The differences are simple: the G10 is lighter and grippier; the SS has a satin blade and a framelock. In real EDC use the difference between a liner lock and a frame lock on the Drifter is meaningless. If there is additional strength found in the framelock, it’s never going to matter in real world use. Second, the satin blade is nicer, as coated blades look crappy over time, but in a $20 knife, WHO CARES? What does matter are things like weight and grip. On a daily basis, these things are places where the G10 model bests the SS model and on a daily basis these things matter.

But if "to each his own" is the mantra, we can throw reason out the door in favor of baseless preferences. And if we are willing to do that, why stop there? Why not do everything based solely on preference? Why look at specs at all? Why look at prices at all?

Let's look at something else, something that is not a comparison between two objects but a "favored" design element in knives--finger scallops like those found on the Benchmade 300SN.

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These are not just ugly, they are empirically poor designs. First, because of the shape of the grip that uses finger scallops you are forced to hold the knife in a specific way--the product dictates how you use it, a major no-no in the world of design (aside from the design of safety equipment). Finger scallops have ZERO affordance. But this is not just a snooty design complaint. If you listen to Episode 29 of the Knife Journal Podcast, you'll hear Kyle, a HAND SURGEON, talk about how the muscles of the hand work. Basically as you make a fist, your hand muscles pull your fingers together--the stronger the fist, the tighter your fingers. This means that the idea of finger scallop grips actually counteracts how your hand works when you are really trying to hold on. It’s like a pair of opaque glasses--a self-defeating design. Finger scallops are lazy design. They make something "feel" and "look" ergonomic. But they are neither actually ergonomic nor are they good design. They suck. But people like them because they look cool. Finger scallops on knife handles are the knife world equivalent of the CAPS LOCK button--completely useless, but still around because of tradition. I don't care if Randalls have finger scallops--they DO NOT WORK. Get rid of them.

Oh but we can't have logic or reason invade the world of preference because "to each his own."

And then there are the people that complain about my take on the Cryo. They point out how well it sells, how it’s a great value for what you get, and how it’s pretty darn cheap. Compared to knives of yesteryear it is a huge value, they say. And it is true. But this is Brad's point about the G2. The G2 is a very good pen historically speaking. But compared to what's out there now, it’s nothing special. The G2, compared to the current best in class, is merely adequate. The Cyro is similarly adequate (though the G10 version has me excited again). It’s not bad. No way. Compared to the knives 50 years ago it is a stunning achievement. But compared to what's out there now, it’s just not that big a deal. Why buy adequate when you can buy great (the Zing SS)? Why buy adequate when you can buy great for LESS (the G10 Drifter)? You know the comparison between the Cryo and the Zing SS--same materials, same price, better blade:handle and better blade:weight. The numbers show it--the Zing is just better. But it is not a Hinderer design and that's the difference. It is a difference based on preference not fact. In the end, the Cryo is beloved because a group of people that like the Hinderer look and style can get a bit of the magic for $39.95. It’s a good knife, historically speaking. It is a great seller. But in the modern marketplace it is no where near great.

But if "to each his own" is our motto, the Cryo is GREAT (because everything is GREAT) and the state of the art is never advanced. The Case Copperlock begot the Spyderco Worker which begot the Benchmade Mini Grip which begot the Kershaw Skyline...and so on.

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If we don't demand the best, we won't get the best. Today’s adequate is yesterday's state of the art, but if we settle for adequate we'll never get tomorrow's state of the art.

Any enthusiast really likes something because they are drawn to what makes that particular thing interesting, great, or unique. And the minute we throw out quality because of preference, we have no business really evaluating anything at all. If it is all preference, then who cares if you spend $40 more for the same thing, or buy an inherently inferior knife, or a design feature that actually does the opposite of what its designed to do? Critical analysis serves all of us. It makes us focus on stuff that matters and it pushes the state of the art forward. Settling for a Mora instead of a Bark River is something you are free to do, but don't pretend like it is a purely rational choice. If you can afford good stuff then always, always buy it. If you can't, save up. Don't buy something lesser and pretend it’s not or worse yet heap scorn on those that do buy better stuff and do so for good and rational reasons.

"To each his own" is a cop out. It is a form of self-delusion and anti-rational thinking. There are pieces of gear that are just better than others. At the top there is a great deal of preference, but comparing the top to the bottom is pretty easy to do. Good tools are worth buying, if you can afford them. Even if that means saving instead of indulging your impulse buy something new every paycheck. I waited a year to buy my XM-18 and I am glad I did. It was worth it to me (if for no other reason than the ability to use and review it for the site), even if its not a price-justified expense compared to say, the Sebenza.  But there is a small amount of irrationality there.  I have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  The difference between it and a Sebenza is small, but the difference between it and the Cryo isn't.

Good tools are great fun.  Bashing people for spending a lot of money is great fun.  But at some point rationality has to play a role--a Mora is not as good as a Bark River.  No amount of "to each his own" can make up the difference, unless all rationality is thrown out.  And that point, who cares what you buy or why?  In fact, who cares if you spend twice as much for the same thing?  Its a slippery slope and one that ends in silliness. 

26 comments:

  1. I agree... To an extent. If you need a piece of gear to work well, or you take pride in it, then yes, absolutely, buy the best you can afford, and save up if need be. The issue I have is that this argument can slide the other way. I believe you get what you pay for, but sometimes you pay for more than you need. Take the kershaw injection and the sebenza. The sebenza has superior steel, no doubt, but in my edc use, I don't notice the difference. Probably because I am a cubicle jockey, but there you are. The point is, for me, the injection is a better fit for me because there is no point in paying $320 more for something that offers me no tangible benefit in my everyday life. And that's where I think "to each his own" has a place. It depends on your end use. If you're buying a knife as part of a collection, or for fun, then yes, buy the best, but I think gear needs to be evaluated based on your use requirements. These are tools, after all.

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    1. I totally agree. My bigger point was this notion that both Kyle (re: the Mora) and Brad (re: the G2) were making which is this notion that there really ISN'T a difference between the high quality and low quality stuff and that its all a matter of opinion. A Mora makes a fine beater knife, but it is not as good as a Bark River or a Fallkniven. Its just not. If you need a beater knife AND only a beater knife then it probably makes sense to buy a Mora, but keep in mind there is better stuff out there and be critical when evaluating what you buy and why.

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  2. An interesting point made about finger scallops that I have observed first hand, in fact, with your number one recommended knife - the Spyderco Dragonfly 2. It's handle design allows only one (or two, if you consider the reverse grip a useful way to hold the knife) grip, severely limiting the ways one can control the blade. There are other issues with the handle design that limit its use (one being that the handle curves beneath the belly of the blade thus preventing a useful fulcrum for fine chopping tasks), but this is then main point that keeps this blade in my drawer and not in my pocket.

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    1. There is a difference, both in design and purpose, between a finger choil and finger scallops (which are a series of finger choils). A choil like on the DF2 adds a great deal of control and precision to cutting tasks, placing your hand closer to the cutting edge (like on a scalpel). On the DF2, like on all good handle designs, its the rear of the blade that "locks" the hand it. As Kyle described it and my experience has informed me, that catch or "parrot beak" (on some knives) is the thing that really keeps the knife in place and the DF2 has that feature as well.

      As for the curve, I think its a good way to allow for more real estate on the handle without increasing size.

      Say what you want and I understand really big hands have a problem, but the handle design on the DF has been almost completely unchanged since its debut (only the distance between the thumb hole and the pivot changed in the first iteration and the second added jimping and a new pocket clip).

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    2. Tony, there is absolutely nothing in common with the grip you are forced to take on the DF2 and the way you grip a scalpel (which is between your thumb and middle finger holding both sides of the scalpel near the blade with index finger supporting the axis blade from above and remaining fingers wrapped around the handle. This is a similar grip outlined in the comical Shun training video for holding a kitchen knife with maximum control: http://youth.be/pKgGlpe45T0 ).

      The fact is there are no parrot beaks or choils on a scalpel to lock your hand into place, yet you still get excellent precision.
      Choils don't give you more control of a blade, proper gripping technique does that.

      Call it a choil or finger scallops, if it is locking (as you say) your hand into a particular grip, it is limiting the ways you can use the knife, which ultimately result in less control of the blade.

      That the DF's handle design hasn't been changed since its debut does little to negate its limitation.

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    3. (I see how this design might be a useful feature for people who don't know how to hold a knife to maximize control of a blade, but such features inevitably become drawbacks as one gains experience.)

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    4. (Comical Shun video showing pinch grip link: http://youtu.be/pKgGlpe45T0 )

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    5. I understand that a scalpel is gripped differently. The point was that a choil allows you to get close to the cutting edge allowing more precision, much like the grip on a scalpel is close to the edge.

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    6. Also, if you read closely and listen to the relevant episode of the Knife Journal, the hook at the end of a handle has nothing to do with precision cuts. It is the think that helps you hold on to a knife. In a scalpel where there is no need for that locked in feel, it is absent. Instead, look at the Becker handle, found on Ka-Bars, for an example of what I am talking about. The fact that the DF2 has both a choil, for precision, and something of a hook at the end, makes it, in my mind, one of the better handles on a small knife.

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    7. My issue with the handle end on the DF2 is that it prevents most of the blade from making contact with a cutting surface. The Becker handle on a Ka-bar doesn't cause this issue, possibly because the blade is longer, however the Spyderco Pingo has a similarly designed handle as a Ka-bar and is of comparable size to the DF2 yet also does not suffer this issue. See Jens Anso and Jesper Voxnaes demonstrating what I'm talking about here: http://youtu.be/xL-WIdW2S8o

      Now try making full contact with the blade of the DF2 on a cutting surface for contrast.

      You will also notice in that video that despite there being no choil on the Pingo, you're still able to get plenty close to the cutting edge with a precision grip on the blade, much more like the grip which you would take on a scalpel.

      Again, it is your gripping technique that determines your control of the blade, not a choil.

      In my experience using the DF2, the choil and handle design serve more as hinderances.

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    8. ...hinderances to versatile and effective cutting technique.

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    9. (Correction: there is a choil on the Pingo, it's just not in the shape of a finger scallop like on the DF2.)

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    10. In this case, I think it's a question of a forced grip versus affordance - while the DFII certainly has a suggested grip (for those with larger hands, more firmly suggested) it lies in a different spot than finger scallops. The scallops do more than tell you how to hold the knife, they directly impact grip in a negative way.

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  3. I don't entirely disagree, but I think it's exceptionally important to keep in mind the point of diminishing returns. Is the Zing twice as good as a Sanrenmu? Is the Dragonfly 4 times as good? Is the small Sebenza 40 times better? The Sebenza may offer better performance than the other options but how much of that performance do you really need? It is important to take wants and needs into consideration when discussing these issues and to make a sharp seperation between the two. If I'm totally honest, all my knife needs outside the kitchen could be met by a SAK, Mora and Tramontina machete.

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    1. Of course, as with all products, increases in performance at the top end of the scale are much more expensive than increases at the bottom. A Kia can hit 100 mph, while a Corvette can hit 200 mph, but to get to that magic 250 mph you have to buy a multimillion dollar supercar.

      I could so well with a SAK, but I also like a lock, so a DF2 could do me well for a very long time. As for a fixed blade, I am not thrilled with the Mora. I want something beefier for outdoor tasks.

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  4. Andrew @ 555 GearMarch 11, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    Some gear items are better than others, sometimes MUCH better. Objectively. I don't care how butthurt you are. Great rant Tony, agree 100%.

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  5. Why worry about the purchases of someone else? Their value system is different than yours.

    All value is subjective!

    and

    After every economic transaction between two parties (A & B), BOTH parties consider themselves richer / wealthier, otherwise, they would not have made the exchange. (Party A values a knife MORE than their money. Party B values the money MORE than the knife.)

    ~ jcard21

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    1. Its not so much that I am worrying about other people's purchases so much as it is I am trying to justify the analysis of the quality of products. If all value is subjective, then there is no rationality to how you spend your money. Only the very rich can think like that. For the rest of us, I think it is worth it to try to find the best buy for your money.

      Also, while all value is subjective, that doesn't mean values can't be compared. Consensus about the Sebenza matches the consensus that has formed in all forms of analysis--Aristotle is still read 2,500 years later because he had some good ideas. Its not to say that he is always right or better, but he has more merit to his thought than a random person picked off the street is likely to have.

      This isn't about fine comparisons, but large ones. Comparing the best to the worst is pretty easy. A Sebenza is a better made knife than an M-tech. No real logical way to dispute that.

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  6. Really prefer your usefull reviews compared to the above crap

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    1. I'd really prefer thoughtful comments compared to the above crap.

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    2. That is and was and forever will be my only snarky comment in the history of my blog. It was not so much because the comment pissed me off, but because the retort was so obvious. Commenter, please take no offense, it was just too obvious a joke to leave alone.

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    3. good call :thumbs up:

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    4. Well the title is trolling for hate...

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  7. Tony,

    My wife teaches law (no interest in thr gear world) and tries to teach judgement. It is essentially "formation." I teach "formation" (Catholic). I am sure that your introspection, even-handedness, ability to accept responsibility, and gentlemanly behavior would please her as much as it pleases me. Thanks for being a model of intelligent civility.

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  8. I like the 10/100% rule you refer to.
    Great post.

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  9. I think Nutnfancy stresses value because he wants the manufacturers to try harder. Making a great knife is not easy by any stretch. But, I think it's a little more challenging to weigh trade-offs in order to keep under a certain price point that will appeal to the masses while still producing something that won't end up in the back of someone's drawer some day.

    I also think more Cyro-esque wins would be good for the knife industry. When more people get into knives, everyone wins.

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