Monday, April 28, 2014

Occam's Razor of Gear

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. 


  1. "Living at a time when Europe was in the throes of an intellectual blackout"

    Good grief. You know I love the blog, buddy, but that is messed up.

    The "blackout" (and the Black Death) came AFTER Ockham's death in 1347. The 200 years leading up to that were the High Middle Ages, a zenith of Western culture. Ockham was the beneficiary of a painstakingly built-up, enormously rich and sophisticated tradition.

    The contemporary West is poignantly bush-league, worn out and parochial by comparison.

    Shakin' my head here.

    1. Generally speaking, the Dark Ages has referred to everything between the Plague of Justinian and the end of the Black Death.

    2. The Plague of Justinian was in the 6th century and the Black Death ended just after William of Ockham's life in the early 1350s. Its peak years were actually William of Ockham's last years 1346-1348.

      I was more referring to the fact that he was in the period between the great Greek and Roman thinkers and the Renaissance.

      There was a lot of brilliant thinking going on, for sure, but nothing like the age that preceeded the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. I think this is, in fact, the origin of the term Middle Ages.

  2. Sorry, man. I am actually pumped to read your M16 review (that knife's always given me a dodgy vibe).

    But that bit of rhetoric was a nut punch. Especially since you are a philosophy guy.

  3. I get that. I subscribe to a similar view, articulated by William Morris, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." Goes for anything though.

  4. Your blog is brilliant. This post is exemplary as philosophical and useful.
    I think about the design of gear in the way you posit here. I like the Victorinox combo tool because it does do its three major functions well (I've opened three cans in the last week with it as I lost my can opener! Combo tool isn't as good as the dedicated SAK can opener but I don't think it compromises like the S-90. Its a cap lifter can opener and flat head driver in such a tiny package)

    Recently I have begun to carry a SAK Bantam (small blade and combo tool) plus a small cheap 3 inch steel prybar like a widgy on a mini biner. It cost $5 and the Bantam was $12.
    So small and light the combination is barely noticed in my pocket and always at hand.

    I also sometimes carry the Bantam on a P7 suspension clip and a Gerber Shard as my only keychain item.

    I reduced my light to either a 4Sevens Preon with a clicky I modded myself or a no nonsense L10 high CRI light not much bigger than an AA battery.
    Thinking about a Peak Eiger high CRI medium flood with momentary.

    I bought a Gerber Dime on your advice and this works well with the Shard but its quite a bit heavier than the Bantam/ Widgy combination and the blade is way smaller. But most cutting tasks in urban daily life are minor.
    These three objects, 84mm SAK, mini pry or Shard, small light cover 90% of what I encounter every day. The L10 plus Bantam plus pry could be had for $42 total. A Preon PO instead could bring it down to $37.

    I have a lot of other tools knives and lights but they are mostly for fun.

    To complete the minimalist approach to EDC I am modding a model of SAK I don't know the name of - its an 84mm Bantam with a saw blade - taking out the saw and replacing it with large scissors. I am adding new nylon scales that will include tweezers and toothpick and small straight pin (nylon has better abrasion resistance than cellidor plus better grip)
    The scissors are the tool most frequently used next to the the knife blade so this little 84mm tool of blade, combo tool and scissors together with a small steel prybar and AAA light will probably be all that's needed from now on.

    1. If you're modding an alox knife, then FYI the "Bantam with a saw" is called the Lumberjack. Also, if you're willing to go to 91mm the Victorinox Compact is very close to the mod you're producing (combo tool, blade, scissors, cellidor handles), with the addition of a corkscrew and hook on the spring side. The handles also hold a toothpick, tweezers, and pen. It's a pretty nice little knife.

  5. I hope before the m16 review is posted, you have realized that Kit Carson did not invent the flipper.

  6. Andrew @ 555 GearApril 30, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    Your comment about the Direware reminds me of Cliff's comments about the 0560. Would you agree Tony?