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. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

SPY 007 Overview

Well, I finally got my hands on a SPY 007.  I have wanted one for a very long time and I have even had one lined up for loan for review two or three times.  They never panned out.  Being a flashlight guy at heart, I just had to get one and when the opportunity came up, I took it.  The review is going to take a while.  Something this different, high quality, and...well...expensive takes a while to evaluate.  It is also a bit daunting, the same sort of pressure I felt when reviewing the Hinderer.  Given its history and following and price if I don't give it a perfect folks will be pissed, so I want to take my time.  But I also want to share with you this cool light.  Here it is:

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Knife Show Primer

Knife shows are a strange breed. Many hobbies have shows--you can go to a coin show or a baseball card show--but knife shows are a bit different. They are a mix of a commercial event and a beauty pageant, or at least they were. Knife shows also come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. BLADE is the biggest knife show with hundreds if not thousands of exhibitors. On the other end of the spectrum is the Tactical Knife Invitational, which is an invite-only show where exhibitors get asked to come and people attending pay a hefty fee. There is the California show, that has gone by many names, where the best and brightest makers from the west coast and Hawaii showed up. Then there are the two east coast shows--the New York Custom Knife Show and the East Coast Custom Knife Show.

But most shows aren't spectacular blow outs. Most shows are put on by local organizations and have local makers and dealers. They are small affairs in the ballrooms or conference rooms at Holiday Inns and the like across the country. But you can find great stuff at one of these shows and no matter the show, you can find custom knives at greatly reduced prices (except for a couple of very high profile makers). The Northeast Cutlery Collectors Association's big show, their Annual Show, is coming up on the first weekend of May and I plan on going (I'll be wearing this T-shirt in green, so come say "hi"), so I thought it would be fun to give people a knife show primer.

What To Expect

Most smaller shows will have tables set up and dealers and makers behind the tables. There are quite a few people selling and buying traditional style knives and fixed blades, but over the years the number of folks selling modern folders has risen. There will be lots of Case stuff and old Remington and Winchester blades, but in and amongst the sea of stag handles you can find gems, traditional and modern.

You'll probably find a few people selling modern stuff, basically in person versions of a website. Their prices are a very competitive and generally speaking this is the reason to go to a knife show (aside from talking to folks). The prices on everything are much lower than they are on line or on the secondary market.

After those two groups you will find a few custom makers. This is how I met Steve Karroll. Its also how I impulse bought my second Karroll knife, this gem:


They will have their wears spread out on a table before you tempting you with never-before-seen one offs and the like. You'll also find a few folks selling uber-expensive art knives. Be very careful here, unless you feel like walking home after selling your car to raise funds for a gilded drop point hunter or an ivory handled Bowie.

Finally you might have a few exhibitors selling knife supplies like handle materials and exotic damascus bar stock. In true knife SHOW fashion there might also people folks displaying their collections and not selling a thing. It is a tradition at knife shows to give out awards for best in show and even though this is less common nowadays there are still folks doing this. These people are a fount of information, so even if you have money burning a hole in your pocket its worth chatting with them.

Have a Plan

Now that you know what to expect, you need to know how to get the most out of a knife show. First, I strongly, strongly recommend you have a budget. If you don't things can get bad very quickly. Even small shows will have a few custom makers and the allure of a unique blade at rock bottom prices can be irresistible. The prices, so called "table prices", are so low that shows are almost always the best way to buy custom knives. Here is why: when a custom maker goes to a show he knows he will have a captive audience with money to spend. So he can set aside some time before the show, make a handful of blades, and come back with a handful of cash. Its rare for a custom maker to sell so many blades so quickly and the shows, if well-attended, can be a financial shot in the arm. Additionally, the overhead of a show is very low--basically all they have to buy is the table. Once there they don't have to worry about wait times, materials issues, manufacturing errors, shipping and packaging. Its basically--have knife get cash, especially in the super hot custom market that exists right now. So a knife that costs $600-800 on the secondary market, can be had for much, much less around $400-$500. This applies only to makers, as purveyors generally charge market prices or a bit more.

So now you can see the problem--stuff is super cheap and there is a lot of it. If you don't have a plan you'll lose your shirt (never your pants though because where would you clip your knives?). Here is what I recommend.

First, set a budget. This is hard ceiling. What I generally do is set aside some money months in advance and use that. I strongly recommend against using a credit card because that means your budget is essentially whatever you want it to be. Bring cash or a check (yes, check, not checkbook). Set the limit and don't go over it. Remember though almost all of these folks are small business people and thus cash is king.

Second, have an idea of what you want to buy in mind. If you don't have any idea, you will be distracted by all of the pretty baubles. A rare TiNives folder here,

a custom drop point hunter there, and oh shit, there is an RJ Martin Q36. Don't do that. Have a target in mind and look for that thing. Not only will this prevent you from spending money on stuff you don't need or want, it will focus your search and make the anticipation fun. You don't have to be rigid about the goal, but it is better than walking into a place with $500 and no idea what you want.

Third, be aware of what's there. With the Internet, so many things are readily available. There is virtually no production knife being made today that you can't just buy if you have the money. But at a knife show there will be things that you might never see on a web page. For me, this is one of the reasons to go to a knife show. You'll probably find stuff there that you have never heard of or things you have heard of only as rumors. That TiNives blade I mentioned might make an appearance. You may find an early production version of the Paul Knife

or some esoteric traditional folder. Try, if you can, to find out what dealers and custom makers are going to be in attendance, so you can whittle down your list.

Early and Often

If you are looking to score a custom blade or a hard to find, out of production knife, it is worth your time to arrive early. The last show I went to I got there about 5 minutes after it opened, I saw a knife I really wanted, and then did a loop of the show. On my second visit, the knife was still available, but that custom maker's stock dwindling. Not wanting to lose the blade I told him to hold it for me. On my third loop around almost everything was gone and I bought the blade. All of this happened in about a half hour.

The custom market is so crazy hot right now that almost every maker's books are closed. So seeing their wares at a knife show, at prices half of what you would pay online, makes it very tempting to just plunk down cash. But everyone is in the same boat. The chance that stuff will be there at the end of the show, even the end of small shows, is almost zero. Sure there will be some guy with a series of $6,000 art knives that don't sell out or someone with a approach to folders that has stuff at the end of the show, but by in large, the market is so hot right now that many custom makers working in the modern style sell out quickly. Get to the show early.

Also, once you arrive, I would recommend making one large sweep of the entire place. Now with a show like BLADE this is not possible. The show is just too big. But for most other shows its reasonable for you to make a loop through the entire show and come back to what you want. There is nothing worse than "settling" for one blade only to find your grail for less than you thought it would be one table down. By getting there early you can afford to do a loop or two. You might be able to persuade folk to hold stuff for you. Don't be a jerk and make them hold stuff for the entire show and not buy it, but if you put a hold on something for an hour and come back, that's not unreasonable.

Just because there are dozens of dealers and thousands of blades, don't feel the need to buy anything. If you have made the circuit multiple times and nothing stands out, save your money. There will always be another show. Mind you, I don't practice what I preach here. The last show I went to I was look for a Paul Knife and came home with the impulse purchase Steve Karroll folder shown above. I am just telling you what you ought to do, not what you will do. I have no doubt that when the wallet is able the will is weak, especially at a knife show.

Ask Questions

As great as the knives are, I have found that the people are better. The chance to talk directly to custom makers is a real treat. You can find out if the bleeding edge steel is all its cracked up to be or if it is really just the same old thing. You'll learn a ton about lock face geometry and pivots. You could get an impromptu class on locking mechanisms. And you might run into a mega-collector.

One person I met at a show is probably the last person in the world you'd expect to have a world class collection. Judging by appearances she, yes she, would probably pass for the head librarian at a university before you'd guess she has one of the finest folder collections in the world. She is a fountain of knowledge. She knows knife history and the collector's market better than some dude at Sotheby's. She can tell you when that particular lock was used on a given Michael Walker or when Damasteel became all the rage. She can talk with conviction about the superiority of a bail to a lanyard hole. And she is super nice. Almost all of the folks at knife shows are. Sure there are a few that stand out like sore thumbs, but you'd be shocked at the number of people that will let you handle five figure knives without batting an eye.

Be a listener. Be polite. Be friendly and ready with a handshake and you will learn a ton and meet awesome people. The joy of finding a grail compares poorly to the insights you will gain. As a small, niche community, the knife world is tight knit. And even in small shows held in far flung places you'll find someone that has great insights. That's worth the admission price, even if you come home with nothing.

My List

Just for fun I thought I'd share with you what I am looking for at the show:

1. Any TAD Dauntless flipper with a blade 3" or under
2. RJ Martin Modulator
3. Paul Knife with a blade 3" or under
4. TiNives with a blade 3" or under
5. Northwoods Knives Indian River Jack (this is my current #1 most wanted traditional knife, even over a Bose/Case collab; ATS 34 steel, amazing handle shape, convex grind...its a real killer blade)

6. Kershaw Tilt (yep, still)
7. Blue handled or Orange handled Paramilitary 2
8. Dietz-modded Boker Kwaiken

I could keep going, but at some point its just ridiculous.  If I land either of the first two, I will be on a spending freeze for the next millenium or two, but its good to have dream purchases.  You never know when one will float past.  Oh, and in that case, I'd take a Mayo if one was available at a reasonable price. 

If you are going to BLADE or your just going to a local show, have fun.  If you are going to Mystic, please say hi. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Spyderco Smallfly Review

Audacity is one hallmark of a good designer.  They must possess a sense of confidence in their abilities that makes it possible for them to alter and modify existing, historical, and in many cases, successful designs.  Sal Glesser and the folks at Spyderco are nothing if not audacious.  Their hole opener fundamentally altered the knife design landscape for the better.  The Spyderco Smallfly, and its big brother the Spyderfly, are even more radical departures from the traditional form.  The point of this review is to figure out if those departures are, like the Spyder hole, good for the design.

Until two months ago I had very little experience with balisongs.  Since then I have had something like a crash course.  I have two--a very traditional inexpensive M-tech and the Smallfly.  I have a friend that has practiced Filipino martial arts for more than 30 years and he was kind enough to tutor me in the ways of the balisong.  And then I practiced.  I practiced whenever I could have one hand free--talking on the phone, doing menial data entry, and the like.  Packing lunches late at night was often a good time to swing the balisong around.  My two months don't make me an expert, but at this point I have reviewed enough knives to know what works.  

Here is the Spyderco Source page, there is no product page on Spyderco's site anymore.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.  Here is the review sample (purchased from Merrimack Knife and Tool):

The review sample will be given away.  Because of the strict legal controls placed on the sale and distribution of balisongs, this contest is LOCAL only.  The first person to drive to Merrimack Knife and Tool on 101A in Nashua, NH (directions here) with a copy of this review, wins the Smallfly.  I wish I could open this up to other folks, but the laws regarding balisongs are so restrictive that doing so invite trouble.  

Twitter Review Summary: The Spyder-fied balisong works well and is very good for beginners

Design: 2

While the core of the knife is all balisong, the touches make it clearly a Spyderco.  Going from the BaliYo pen (which I happened to buy on a lark around Christmas--terrible pen, fun toy) to the Smallfly was not that difficult to do at all.  Going from this knife to a "real" balisong or from the BaliYo to a real balisong is an enormous leap.  I am not sure that is a good thing or a bad thing.  The knife is clearly well thought out and well designed.  I am not a balison buff so telling you how balisong it is is something I can't do, but I can tell you it works as a balisong and it is quite a good little knife.

The normal ratios are bit silly on balisongs.  The design makes the blade:handle always look odd.  Here it is .66, which is pretty atrocious for a normal folder.  The blade:weight is much better at .98.  Here is the knife next to the Zippo:


Fit and Finish: 2

I have experienced widely differing levels of fit and finish on Spyderco's USA made blades.  My Paramilitary 2 review sample was downright rough.  This was not a unique or rare occurrence.  My Manix2 LW was, however, superb.  Here the Smallfly is more like the Manix2 LW.  The pivots are especially nice and the handle scales, though hard to photograph, look great:


Thanks to phosphor bronze washers, the pivots, while tight, let the knife roll with grace and ease during flipping.  They are truly great pivots.  The handles are nicely chamfered and that gives the knife a completed appearance and makes rolling the handles, a crucial move in many balisong tricks, relatively easy to do.  

Grip: 2

The grip on this knife is really quite strong, much stronger than normal, traditional balisongs.  Gone are the slick handles that make tricks easy and in their place are grippier handles.  This is the first sign that this knife is not primarily a trick machine, but instead an actual user knife. 


There is jimping on the handle and the G10 is grippy without being offensive.  The gentle scallops along the handle do well to hold your hand in place and help minimize pinching, something that happens often when you are a beginner doing tricks on a traditional balisong.

Carry: 1

There is no way around it--this knife is mediocre in the pocket.  A traditional balisong is slim and graceful.  This thing is wide and clumsy.  Second, the offset pocket clip makes the knife tend to roll when carried, much like a clipped multitool does.  Its not my favorite set up, but its not awful. 

Steel: 2

154CM is one of my favorite mid priced steels and a steel that has gotten better the more I have experience with it.  In this knife, it is positively awesome.  The grind really does take full advantage of the steel's properties and the result is a great cutter.  This is the second sign that this is designed to be a real knife and not a sideshow.

Blade Shape: 1

Wow, that's a crazy recurve: 


Sharpening this knife might be more difficult than sharpening the Zulu or even the ZT0350, my least favorite knife to grind.  The blade shape is just not helpful.  It doesn't do anything really, and if balance was a concern, they should have opted for a simple spearpoint.  As I get older and more experienced with knives I have come to not even like the LOOK of a recurve.  Perhaps now I just see it as a sharpening chore instead of a cool, aggressive design.  

Grind: 2

Spyderco knows how to do grinds.  They aren't as perfect as SOG's but they are very effective.  The key, one I don't understand how others have missed, is the very wide cutting bevel.  I am not a fan of spearpoint blade shapes, as they tend to make the main bevel very steep, but here, in this knife, its not much a bother.  Your very unlike to do a ton of rope cutting or other tasks where material will bunch, given the lack of a lock and the balisong form.  

Deployment Method: 2

In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the wielding of a balisong is just short of a form of ballet.  They can be deployed fast and gracefully.  Watching my friend open and close a balisong I quickly realized why they are so feared.  Nothing, not even a switchblade, matches the intimidation factor of a properly brandished balisong.  The fact that you can also deploy them discretely is a testament to the greatness of the form itself.

Here, the deployment is as good as most folding knives, even good flippers, but it is just a bit less amazing than the normal balisong (which is essentially a deployment method with a knife built around it).  The holes, shown below, can be used for deployment:


That does not, however, make up for the fact that the blocky handles drop this down a notch in terms of balisong deployments.  This isn't the Benchmade 42 (widely regarded as one of the best production balisongs made, and now out of production).  Great for a regular knife and decent for a balisong.

Retention Method: 2

I really like the wire clip, especially this iteration of it--the high tension version. It is secure, discrete, and doesn't interfere with grip (unlike the over the top squared off version). 

Lock/Blade Safety: 0

Look, you have to understand going in that balisongs are more difficult and dangerous to deploy than other knives.  That's just a fact.  You can learn to make that danger less, but there is no question that opening a balisong takes much more hand-eye coordination than a flipper does, for example.  So that is an issue inherent to the form.  I am not willing to dock the knife a point for that, but if you are thinking about a balisong, consider this a disclaimer. 

The thing that I strongly dislike about the Smallfly is the fact that you cannot lock the blade open.  This is an issue particular to this design.  This latch locks the knife closed:


Nothing, but your hand, prevents the knife from closing in the open position.  This means that you can't readily put the knife down during a cutting task.  The smooth pivots are great for flipping, but will move around on you if you are doing intermittent tasks.  Not good.  Furthermore, there is no good reason why the knife has to work this way.  Many untraditional balisong designs allow the latch to swing around to lock the knife in both the open and closed position.  This is really a glaring oversight in an otherwise thoughful revision of the traditional form.

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

As a knife the Smallfly is very interesting.  It is a good blade and more of a user than many balisongs out there.  In the end the changes Sal et. al. made make this knife a better user, a better cutter than most balisongs, but the omission of a locking open mechanism seems like a pretty boneheaded move.  If that problem is fixed, this knife would be about as good a user knife as the balisong form allows.

I can't do the flipping and high speed twirls that many balisong fans can do, so I am not going to pretend to evaluate that aspect of the knife.  I'd imagine there is probably some "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" going on here, but that is just a guess.  Its that kind of thinking however, that a truly great designer acknowledges and then promptly ignores.  The holes as the base of the handle do make simple, BaliYo style tricks easy, offering you another layer of tricks that a normal balisong doesn't have, but I am not sure if that matters all that much.

This is a good, unique balisong. It is a capable user.  I am not sure if the Spyderco touches are improvements to the traditional form, but they do work.  The one omission is a pretty big one, though.    

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spyderco Smallfly Video Overview

The full review is in the works, but until then, continuing this week's theme, here is a video overview of the Spyderco Smallfly:

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Balisong

This is the start of Balisong Week.  Not only am I going to review (and give away) the extremely hard to find Spyderco Smallfly, I am going to kick things off with an overview of this most interesting of blades.


If you like design and you like knives you have to at least appreciate the elegance of the balisong (known in the US also as a butterfly knife).  Few things are as simple and effective as a balisong.  The lock up is as solid as you can get in a folding knife.  The deployment is so fast that it drew the ire of lawmakers when the updated the USA Switchblade Act (15 USC 1241-1245) the first time they had a chance to review and amend it.  This is a design geek's knife.

The history of balisongs is fascinating.  The name is derived, not from Benchmade, as their trademark on "Bali-Song" would have you believe, but from the Tagalog phrase "folding horn".  It is a beautiful example of a clever turn of phrase: "baling sungay" becomes "balisong" and once translated you know exactly what a baling sungay is.  There is no exact inventor, but they were very widespread in the Tagalog region of the Phillipines.  Like the Barlow, the design of balisongs is such that they can be made with substandard materials and still perform very, very well.  Typically they had brass or pot tin handles, saving the better metal, usually leaf springs, for the blade.  If the maker had a lot of the higher quality steel available, they also fashioned the stop pins and the pivots out of them to help with the flipping action and to reduce the impact of wear and practice.  Generally they came with clip point or spear point blades and almost always had a hollow grind.  

I was lucky enough to have a friend that studied Filipino fighting techniques centered around the balisong.  He saw me playing with my Spyderco BaliYo (good toy, terrible, terrible pen) and told me it was time to take the training wheels off.  He was wrong--a few minutes into practicing with a real knife my slashed knuckles proved I was more uncoordinated than he thought.  But the time he spent with me showing me how to open and close the balisong was not only a good deal of fun, it was illuminating.  He has used a balisong for so long and made so many of his own that he knows the design inside and out and his information has helped me appreciate what makes a good balisong good.  

First, you want very loose pivots.  Even those with a bit of blade play are fine, so long as it is forced out when the knife is fully deployed.  Second, you want handles that don't quite meet on their own.  They should only meet when you put pressure on them, and that means they should have a bit of flex to them.  Third, the stop pins need to strike the handles in just the right place.  If they don't the whole knife doesn't work.  Finally and most importantly you want handles that are rounded over to allow for smooth, fluid flipping.

All of this pretty basic stuff, especially for people that have been using and flipping balisongs for a long time, but it was all new to me. 

The takeaway, besides the centrality of flipping to the balisong design, is the fact that like the Barlow and the AK-47, this is a tool and a weapon that can be made to work very, very well with substandard materials and relatively low-tech manufacturing methods.  The amount of blade play shocked me, but my friend insisted that was actual a GOOD thing.  And he was dead on.  The rounded over handles look cheap, as if they are cut from rods (which is probably true of authentic lower budget Filipino designs), but again that form factor actually works best.  In the end I realized that the balisong is not just a triumph of good design (which it is), but it is also a triumph of great production.  Everything is in service to performance, and you can achieve performance with very basic and rudimentary materials.  

If its legal where you live and you haven't tried out a balisong, it is probably worth a try.  You can find absolutely suitable designs for around $30.  They will be more than enough to get you started.  One pro-tip from Mr. Uncoordinated--tape off the cutting edge until you get the flipping down pat.  Or at least that's what my knuckles told me to tell you.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tom Bihn Cadet Review Update

After reviewing the Founder's Briefcase recently I decided it was time to update the Cadet review.  Instead of appending a paragraph to the original, I thought I'd do a post on it for a few reasons.  First, I think the update is needs more detail than a paragraph can hold.  Second, I think the Cadet is such a good product that I want to highlight it for readers.  If you need a briefcase start here.  Third, I have a video showing how I use the Cadet and I thought it warranted its own post.

First, here is the video of how I use the Cadet and how I have it configured.

The Cadet is not just a good briefcase, it is my most important work tool.  It makes it possible for me to be a better lawyer and that is worth quite a bit.  It also happens to still look awesome more than two years later, but that's just a very nice bonus.

The Cadet makes me a better lawyer because I can carry less but do more.  The law is, and always will be, an enterprise intimately tied to geography.  In part because of our system of federalism and in part because of the size of the United States, all law is local.  When a big celebrity or wealthy person gets in trouble away from home, their fancy lawyers usually hire the very best local person to handle the case because they know the judges and the laws better than even the fancy lawyer does.  This means that lawyers drive a lot.  I never drive all that far; this isn't long haul trucking, but I do drive a lot.

Two things that I dinged the Cadet on in the original review were Ease of Packing and Straps.

My criticism of the packing ability of the bag centered around the fact that the zipper mouth was small.  I have come to learn that large zipper mouths are, in fact, more of a hassle.  They are prone to unzipping at inopportune times and falling open.  Not only can this NOT happen with the Cadet's zipper, I have come to realize that this thing packs very well.  This is part of the problem with reviewing bags.  There is so much going on, unlike with a knife or a flashlight, that these benefits are hard to see in a short timeframe.  Additionally because I am not a pack rat, but a user, I needed to try a lot more bags before I realized just how ingenious the Bihn Cadet's smaller zipper mouth really was.

Upgrade 1 point.

The second thing I didn't like was how grippy the Absolute strap was.  I was worried that it would take my sports jacket off my shoulder.  That concern was completely unfounded and, in fact, I have come to appreciate the fact that the bag just stays put.  Constantly jerking the bag back into place is bad for you.  It puts a lot of stress on your back and shoulder.  I never do that now.  I am convinced.  The strap here, like the famous Red Oxx strap, is the way to go.  Stay put please.

Upgrade 1 point.

In the two plus years I have had the bag, it has served me incredibly well.  It looks more professional than a messenger bag, but not as stuffy as a hard side briefcase.  It has handled use and abuse exceedingly well, looking virtually new after lots of travel and lots of snow.  I have no hestitation in saying this is the perfect briefcase.  If you need a laptop, it can carry that too, though perhaps not as well as the Founder's Briefcase (though it is close).  But the age of the laptop is ending and in that more mobile, more flexible age, the Cadet rules.

I never understood why sailors loved the ship they served on so much.  It was an object.  But I have come to feel a small bit of that towards the Cadet.  This bag has been with me through many trials, literal and figurative.  It is a well-design tool and it has made me better at my job.  You can't really ask for more from a bag than that.

This is the perfect small briefcase.    

Overall Score: 20 out of 20, PERFECT.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tom Bihn Founder's Briefcase Review

I am a lawyer, so I kinda have a thing for briefcases.  Like farmers and tractors, lawyers and briefcases go together.  They are called briefcases for a reason--you used to be able to store an entire file or brief in the case.  Briefcases have since moved beyond that original meaning, but their utility has never waned.  In the age of the laptop, the briefcase form factor was easily modernized by the inclusion of a padded sleeve to protect the precious computing cargo inside.  But the age of the laptop is over and still so many briefcases come with the obligatory and now virtually unneeded laptop sleeve.  These briefcases also usually have a 3 side zipper to allow for easy extraction of a laptop.  As normally constructed, the modern laptop briefcase is, well, a real hunk of junk if you don't carry a laptop.  This is the main reason I switched to the Tom Bihn Cadet, dropping the enormous Tumi bag loaded with vestigial features as handy as your tailbone. 

When Darcy from Tom Bihn contacted me about reviewing the Founder's Briefcase with its 3 side zipper and padded laptop sleeve I was a little worried.  It shared too many features with that monster of a bag I used to have.  I agreed nonetheless and I am glad I did.  My preconceptions weren't totally wrong, but I was surprised at just how good this bag was.  It proved to me, yet again, that Tumi stuff is overpriced junk with all of the design sophistication of the Subaru Baja (sorry Baja fans). 

Wanting to make sure I wasn't crazy I lent the bag to a fellow lawyer to get her take on it.  She used it for a week and then reported back.  Here is her take:

I was impressed by how much it could hold. I was able to fit many more files than I expected. It has lots of pockets – but my favorite one was the zipper pocket on the top edge inside the main pocket.


It was perfect for easy access to my pens, phone, keys, ID etc because I was able to reach into it while walking and carrying the bag on my shoulder. The thorough padding makes it seem like a very durable laptop bag, although I didn’t try my laptop in it. My one complaint is that this particular bag can really only by worn messenger style (NOTE: see more on this below). When I wore it on just one shoulder it would constantly slip off. As a professional woman I generally don’t find messenger bags to be flattering. When I was wearing it over my winter coat it wasn’t an issue, but I never wore it messenger style when I was just wearing a suit coat because I just don’t find it comfortable or attractive.  I also dislike them in general because when I’m feeling uncoordinated it can be less than a graceful maneuver to get them off, which tends to look less than professional in front of clients. So that’s personal preference, but in general it was a great bag and seemed very durable.

Here is the product page.  Here is a video on the bag.  Here is a review of the bag.  Here is the review sample (already returned to Tom Bihn):


For purposes of this review I carried my wife's Mac Book Pro and my iPad for two days each.  I don't have a laptop anymore, so I had to borrow one.

Twitter Review Summary: If you still need a laptop briefcase, stop looking...this is it.

Design: 1

If you accept that this is a laptop briefcase, you'd be pleased with how it works.  The entire bag is very slim, given that it contains essentially a double padded interior.  I liked the overall slim size and I liked the placement of the shoulder straps, which are situated diagonally over the 3-side zipper (as opposed to being anchored to the sides of the bag, which is impossible because of the zipper).  The grab handles are placed well and the overall appearance is very clean, with echoes of the klettersack thanks to the diamond patches.  There are a lot of things I like about the bag--little touches that are part and parcel of the Tom Bihn product design--but I'll address each of those in the appropriate category below.  Suffice to say, this is a very good bag.

The one major problem that I have with the Founder's Briefcase is the lack of a true external pen pouch.  I have become addicted to being able to grab a pen without opening the main compartment.  It is especially difficult with a 3-side zipper.  You can always carry a pen outside your bag, of course, but there is always something you need at the last minute.

The bag's size is quite manageable.  Here it is in comparison to my Cadet:


As you can see it is about the same size as the Cadet and the Cadet is, itself, a svelte model.  Here it is in comparison to a standard 8 1/2 x 11 notepad:

Fit and finish: 2

By now, I have come to realize that I could just write: Tom Bihn standard fit and finish and be done, but for the uninitiated I'll give you a bit more detail.

First there are no stitch or seam errors.  All of the seams and joints between sheets of fabric are clean, even, and without stray threads.  All of the straps are equally nice in their construction, with no stray threads or uneven stitching (which can result in awkward straps and carry).  The piping around the bag is nice and even as well, creating a consistent and even appearance.  The zippers are nicely integrated into the bag and very smooth.  

Carry: 2

This is a very nice bag on your shoulder and in your hand.  Its not as nice as the Cadet, but there's no way to make it as nice to carry and still be able to hold a laptop.  I would note that the grab handles aren't as beefy as those on the Cadet and THAT is something that has nothing to do with this bag being a laptop bag.


The diagonal placement of the strap works better when the bag the is carried sash-style (or bandolier-style if you prefer the manly descriptor).  Regular shoulder carry works too, but not as well.  There is a tendency for the bag to hang funny.  I think that the base model shoulder strap has something to do with that, as the Bihn Absolute strap has me spoiled.


Materials: 2

All of the materials are quite nice--tough, smooth to the touch, and pleasing to the eye.  I wouldn't put much stock in the parapack material.  Its nice and all, but it just didn't move the needle for me.  It is certainly not worth a premium.  Perhaps to pack rats the difference is huge, but to me, a regular carrier and user, I don't think it is worth the price increase (the Founder's Briefcase, 800 cu. in., is almost $50 than the Cadet, 825 cu. in.).   Here are the two fabrics in macro next to each other (Cadet on the left and Founder's Briefcase on the right):


Accessibility: 1

Okay, there is only so many concessions you can make before they start effecting performance.  The need (or tradition) for a laptop bag to upzip on three sides is silly.  It really does hamper accessibility.  So many times I wanted to open the bag just a bit, but a tug on the shoulder strap would cause the zipper to run a bit.  I was always worried that the bag would just flop open (it can't, of course, because of the strap placement), but the concern was there.  That alone is not the only problem.

Again, I strongly dislike the pen pockets on the interior of the bag.


They work, as does the cord pocket, but they are annoying to get to as you have to basically spill the bag open.

A note for Tom Bihn: there are some people that need to be able to take things in and out of their bags discretely.  As an attorney I try very hard to not disrupt court proceedings and a 3-side zipper makes that hard when I need to reach into my bag and grab something.  The Cadet, on the other hand, does well zipped open and sitting by my side.  Not everyone that carries a briefcase is a airplane traveling business man that can sprawl out when doing a Powerpoint presentation.  For that guy, this bag is AWESOME.  For the rest of us, I'd rather have a smaller zipper. 

Ease of Packing: 2

Okay, if there is one benefit to the 3-side zipper this is it.  Opening this thing for packing is like filleting a fish--everything is right there.  It is very easy and the padding on both sides protects stuff quite well.  

Pockets/Organization: 1

With a laptop comes a mouse, a power cord, a presentation pen, or whatever.  Perhaps this is why there are a ton of small pocket EVERYWHERE on the interior of the Founder's Briefcase.


They are all, as usual for Tom Bihn, well done.  But the inability to access crucial (non-business card) sized stuff when the bag is closed is an annoyance.

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

As usual, Bihn uses YKK zippers.


They are smooth and relatively quiet.  They are not rain guarded like those on the Cadet, but they are very nice nonetheless. They never got bound up and they were incredibly easy to open, even with one hand.  GREAT.  As always.

Straps and belts: 2

Its hard to give the Founder's Briefcase a 2 here as it is not as good as the Cadet, but I think this is more likely to be the Willie Mays Hall of Fame problem than an indication of an inferior product.  Sure, the straps are inferior to the Cadet decked out with the Absolute strap, but then again so is everything else I have ever test, touched or seen.  The reality is this bag's straps are very, very good.  Lightyears ahead of the Tumi crap that is out there.  

Modularity/expansion: 2

Clip points, pockets, accessories galore--that's what you get with every Bihn bag and the Founder's Briefcase is no different.  Not much you can say really.  Marvel at the forethought and modularity of theBihn system as a whole--few bag companies are this good.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Founder's Briwefcase is very, very good.  AS far as laptop briefcases go, its as good as you will find.  It is a bit pricier than others, and it might be the fabric that makes it so, but its still much less than a Tumi of equivalent size.  I know I use Tumi as a touchstone  lot when it comes to bags and it is, in part, because they make so many different designs, and, in part, because they are so widely available and well-regarded.  The Founder's Briefcase, however, has proven to me that Tumi bags are from a different age, an age when the Internet didn't exist as it does today.  Now, businesses cna make great stuff and get it out to people quicker, faster, and cheaper.  The Founder's Briefcase proves that.  

However, and this is a big however, I am not sure why you would buy this over the Cadet.  You can get the cache and store a laptop or a tablet in the Cadet.  and you can remove all of that stuff quickly.  The Cadet is not as good a laptop briefcase as the Founders Briefcase is, but its not that much worse, and it makes a vastly better normal briefcase.  Plus buying the bigger Cadet will save you money. With the cache and the Absolute strap included its still $25 cheaper. 

Here is the real problem though--is there really a market for this bag?  Who carries a big, bulky laptop anymore?  I have long ago stopped looking for or even following laptops in favor of my iPhone and an iPad with a good bluetooth keyboard.  Even those that still need a full function laptop, carry smaller ones.  In part because of the Mac aesthetic and in part because of the increased computing power of these non-laptop devices the laptop itself is just not that useful.  Go look at the displays at your local eletronics store (which, is, itself a vestige of a bygone era).  Note how few laptops are there.  Go to the Apple Store.  Note how frew laptops are there. This is a bag made for ten years ago.  Its a very good bag if you need all of the laptop bells and whistles, but I am not sure how many people there are that fall into this camp.

If you need a full function laptop bag there is a LOT of junk out there.  There are good designs, but they tend to be uber expensive.  My Tumi was more than twice the price of the Founder's Briefcase, even though it was no where near as nice.  If you are a road warrior or someone that still carries a laptop on a regular basis, this is the best design I have seen.  For those that don't go for the Cadet.  Its amazing (and a score update on the Cadet is coming). 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spyderco Chaparral Overview

This little gem is a knife I have overlooked.  I hope to rectify that with this video and an upcoming review on (with a give away to boot).  Placed in the product line as something of a mini-Sage, the Chaparral excels in the EDC role.  Its thin, well made, with high end materials, and a great slicing blade.  There is very little to complain about here.  It does have a very similar overall size and shape to my much beloved Strider PT CC, and it comes in at a 1/3 the price, so that's a good deal.

Here you go: