William of Ockham was a pretty interesting guy. Living in a time when Europe was in the throes of an intellectual blackout and besieged by disease and invasion, he continued the tradition of learning that went back to the ancient Greeks.
He was priest and a thinker that tackled all sorts of deep inquiries. Like many thinkers of the Medieval period, his work is slowly being re-examined. But unlike Duns Scotus or Avicenna, William of Ockham gave us an idea that has never really fallen out of fashion. Even folks that have no interest in philosophy have heard of Occam's Razor (I have no idea why the same word is spelled differently and I couldn't find one when I was researching this article). For most people Occam's Razor is something like this: "That which is simplest is most often true." The real formulation, based on a translation of the Latin, is "Plurality must never be posited without necessity."
The core of the idea is that when evaluating hypotheses or explanations for an event, you shouldn't offer complex theories when simple ones will suffice. But Ockham wasn't a dullard. If simple ones don't work, they try complex ones. Occam's Razor is not a specific theory or type of knowledge by a problem solving concept--a heuristic tool. And it works. It works when trying to figure out why a bridge collapsed or when explaining how and why a curve ball curves. But it also works when evaluating good design. And when you are evaluating the design of ultra-durable tools, like we do with gear, it makes even more sense.
So let me posit the Occam's Razor of Gear:
Eliminate extraneous parts, features, and functions.
This isn't my idea or even the first time I mentioned it on the blog. Here is a post about the Design of Everyday Things, which is an excellent book on design principles and everyday objects. Here is a blog post on my approach to gear.
Like every useful rule, its meant to be interpreted and in my opinion, it is simply a restatement of what said before--more than enough, but never too much. The problem is so many folks focus on too many things and burden their creations with a hundred different objectives. Additionally, if you are exclusively a collector, the rule's force is significantly weakened. Often it is the extraneous that sets a knife apart from the stock version and that is what makes it collectible.
First, there is extraneous design. This is best seen by a comparison between the Direware S-90 and the Spyderco Sage. The Sage is a simple, singularly focused tool--its designed to be a general purpose cutter. That's it. But with the S-90 you see two distinct purposes--cutter and pry.
The S-90 is an impressive custom design, but it has such a mixed purpose that it doesn't really work all that well. As a knife and a folding prybar, its form is a sort of design schizophrenia. The original model was released in S30V steel, an excellent overall performer, but a poor choice for a heavy duty knife. S30V's one major drawback is that it tends to chip instead of bend under stress. As a knife that is supposed to be a folding prybar, the choice of steel is akin to putting racing tires on a monster truck. Applying Occam's Razor of Gear to the S-90 you quickly see the major problem (aside from the grinds and the recurve, which also fail this rule): its hard to make a folding knife that is both a good cutter and a prybar. That mixed design, that extraneous purpose renders the overall design weaker than it should be, an ironic twist for such an overbuilt tool. Direware's subsequent designs and steel choices confirm the folly of both the original design and the original steel. Like all accomplished designer, Eric at Direware, has changed to tougher steels and released a new knife with a thinner and simpler grind.
Then there are extraneous features. In some ways extraneous features, while driven mostly by marketing and not utility, aren't the worst thing in the world. Violations of the Occam's Razor of Gear in terms of features don't necessarily condemn a tool, but it does make a tool less than ideal. There are plenty of multitools that have way too many implements but they remain useful because the implements they do have a good ones. The Occam's Razor of Gear is really a heuristic principle and not a black or white condition for good performance. As a heuristic principle is terribly helpful, though. For example, in the general utility role a Charge is vastly overequipped compared to the much more spartan Skeletool.
That pared down tool set makes the Skeletool not only easier to use but much more likely to get carried thanks to the lessened size and weight. Applying the Occam's Razor of Gear adds benefits that compound on each other, as the Skeletool shows.
Finally, and most egregiously, there is extraneous decoration. Despite what I have written thus far, I am not opposed to decoration. I enjoy a good bolster, some pattern welded damascus, and some stag handles. Ideally, these things would both be beautiful and useful (like stag handles, which aid in grip). But there is a point when the decoration all but swamps the functionality of a device. Art knives are, of course, all about the embellishment, but nowadays many so called tactical knives have so much frosting, so much decoration that they are unsuitable to their original task. This is, in a way, a variation on extraneous design purpose, but really its so prevalent that it probably warrants its own category. You only have to google "Starlingear" to see what I mean. Here is a Lenslight/Starlingear collab:
Don't kid yourself, these things aren't embellishments--they are jewelry for men. If your good with that, good for you. And yes, I am a hypocrite--I have more than my fair share of titanium lights and as most electrical engineers will tell you, it is not the best or most conductive material--aluminum is better and copper much better.
Making sure that everything has a function and that every function adds to the tool's overall performance isn't a complicated thing, but market forces often conspire to take money out of your pocket for things that don't really matter. Obeying the Occam's Razor of Gear isn't hard, but making money doing so just might be.
All of this is leading up to the review of the CRKT M16, one of the most iconic, affordable, and important knives produced in the last 20 years. After a good two months with the blade and lots and lots of research, I think I am ready to give my opinion. That's for Friday's post.