Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"That's My Opinion"

Perhaps the best and worst part of the knife community is the various fora we all read.  They are the source of great information and great misinformation. They can be very supportive and fun or petty bores.  Recently, I was reading a forum review of a Medford Praetorian.  In the OP, the poster showed pictures of his Praetorian doing "food prep" and in those photos were two "slices" of tomato.  It was pretty clear to me that those tomatoes weren't really sliced, but more crushed.  The poster was confronted by some folks about this and he insisted that the tomatoes were sliced.  Remember the part about forums being "petty bores"?  At some point you just have to let the guy be happy with his knife.  No amount of reasoning or proof is going to cut through the happiness and post-purchase rationalization that allows someone to see tomatoes that look crushed as sliced.  To me, it seems like the only appropriate response to someone that is that entranced with a product is "I am glad you like it."

But one refrain that seems to be a crutch for online discussions when people disagree is "that's my opinion."  The problem is folks seems to forget what an opinion is, versus what constitutes a fact. And this is not just in the world of gear and online forum discussions.  Everyone, EVERYONE in politics seems guilty of this.  And all of this argument and reality avoidance reminds me of a favorite quote of my from the late great Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts."  "Blue is an awesome color" is an opinion.  "This knife is a good slicer" is not.  The knife either is or isn't a good slicer.  Its something you can go out into the world and find out.  I don't want to get to epistemological, but an opinion is something no one can or should argue about, but facts are a different thing.  Its important to discuss and argue WITH facts.  

As a critic of sorts, I run into this issue a lot, especially when a review offends someone.  The Cryo SS review is a perfect example.  I said the knife was too heavy for its size and people disputed that as an opinion.  The reality is this is a verifiable fact.  No knife I have reviewed weighed anything close to what the Cryo did, given its blade length.  B:W is a fact.  That fact can be used to compare one knife to another.  And in those comparisons the Cryo SS did poorly.  Now, of course I have not reviewed EVERY knife, but I have reviewed quite a few.  And of the ones I haven't reviewed, I have yet to find one with a worse B:W (though the zinc handled Gerber 39 seems like a contender).  Even if there are a few that are worse, that doesn't undercut the fact that the Cryo is far below average in this regard. So I feel very comfortably in declaring that the knife was too heavy for its size.  

One thing that has made criticism of all sorts much more difficult is this persistent belief that matters of aesthetics are pure opinion, that beauty is democratic.  Two hundred years ago, the prevailing belief was the exact opposite.  Immanual Kant and other intellectuals took very seriously the idea that there were objective standards in evaluating beauty.  I think that some of that discussion went too far, but I am much closer to that camp than today's modern notion that all evaluations of beauty are opinion.

Elle MacPherson makes a compelling case for me.  Yes, I think she is beautiful, but the reasons why are interesting.

Elle MacPherson was known in modeling circles as "The Body" and it wasn't just because she looked great in a bikini, which she most certain did and does to this day.  In fact, she was blessed with classical proportions--from her typical bra, waist, hips measurements to her height to her facial features.  Renaissance master and great painters found that the most visually pleasing bodies were exactly eight heads tall.  That is, their bodies were eight times the height of their heads. MacPherson is exactly eight heads tall, a rarity among human beings.  Gods were comically proportioned at 8 and half heads tall while average people were 7 heads tall.  You can see a whole raft of body proportion standards in Da Vinci's Virtruvian Man.   

Further studies (here and here) have shown that people respond strongly to certain body proportions.  There is hardwired into the human brain empirical standards of beauty in the human form.

I think it is fair to assume that there are also at least a few common touchstones of the aesthetics of objects as well.  Wassily Kandinski, famous abstract painter and teacher at the Bauhaus believed that colors and shapes were related and devised a very complex version of the standard artist's color wheel.  These  color shape relationships are seen in his paintings and art all over the world, even in different cultures.

This is all a way of laying a foundation for the argument that there are shapes in gear we find beautiful and I would even go further and say shapes we find useful.  Jim Nowka talked about visual tension on the episode of GGL that he was on, referencing an idea from the master Bob Loveless.  You can see it in some of the classic Randalls and many of Bob's knives.  But I think its not just an aesthetic thing--I think our eye likes these shapes because these shapes are useful.  Loveless's Drop Point Hunter, seen here,

Image courtesy of Knife Purveyor.

is not just a gorgeous blade, it is probably the most useful blade shape.  

I keep coming back to a few standards.  I think that a 9 inch blade is just about the limit on what I find useful in a knife (not a machete, a knife).  For a chopper 9 inches is just right.  Smaller and it is hard to baton, larger and it is unwieldy doing just about everything.  So too do I think that 3 inches is the sweetspot for a folder.  And here is the crazy thing--when I draw out gear or cut out mock ups as toys on my band saw these numbers come up again and again, even when I am not making a conscious decision about dimensions.  I can imagine that very large or very small people will have different dimensions, but for most folks these things seem to work.

And so I think we need to be willing to call an opinion an opinion and a fact a fact.  I think we also could benefit from a historical perspective on the history of aesthetics and a realization that there are some factual foundations to our notions of what is beautiful.  

And no dude, you did not slice that tomato. 


  1. Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

  2. Hi, i like your reviews very much but in your statement about the cryo i have to disaggree. Stating that the cryo is heavy is a fact, stating that the cryo is too heavy is an opinion. Of course you are entitled to your own opinions, but for someone who likes heavy knifes, other knifes with a better ratio might just be too light and not the cryo too heavy. Which cleary shows that this statement is a preference/opinion not a fact.
    Keep doing your good work.

    1. Sorry Tony,I have to agree.

    2. The Cryo SS is, statistically speaking, too heavy for its size. Its just a matter of average. Some knives are heavier and some a lighter. But no knife I have reviewed has had a worse b:w ratio. If I said it was too heavy for me, that's an opinion, but when I said it was too heavy for its size, that is just a matter of numbers. You might LIKE that fact, but there is no question its heavier than virtually every knife its size.

      I guess I could take out the word "too" in the phrase: "its too heavy for its size" and that would make it a fact, but that's some real hairsplitting.

    3. Yep, the "too" is what definitely introduced your opinion. (An opinion I agree with btw.) "Unusually heavy for a sub-3 inch knife" would not be opinion.

      Illustratively: by simple logic, there must be a least attractive Laker Girl. But it's a matter of opinion that she is "too unattractive" to go on a date with.

      The Cryo SS ain't no Laker Girl. But that's my opinion!

      BTW you should totally review the Gerber 39. Oh man. Talk about sliced vs. crushed.

  3. Reminds me of people trying to define a "thrower" or "floody" flashlight over on that forum. Call it what you want when reviewing a light, but please tell me the lumen output, lux, and head size as well so I can make my own assessment.

  4. Tomatoes in question


  5. There are so many subjective preferences built in to the statement "too heavy for its size" that it cannot be fact. It may be fact that based on your preferences the knife is too heavy. Perhaps someone else would say something lighter is "too lite for its size" based on personal preferences? If the weight was due to something that resulted in increased performance, such as durability, and durability trumped weight as a factor for the end user, would it be too heavy, or heavy as it needed to be?

    And your argument is based almost entirely on relativity - the availability of alternatives. If someone releases a knife equivalent to your favorite in every way important to you, but lighter, is your favorite knife now too heavy for its size? I suppose there's a certain amount of obsolescence involved in that scenario, but what if, despite the weight difference, there is no noticeable performance difference?

    And in the tomato slice picture it looks like the tomatoes are sliced, but due to the angle on one of the slices, the tomato got too thin and some was crushed in the slicing. The guy says that the appearance was due in part to the properties of the tomato at the part that looks crushed. I see fairly clean cut lines otherwise. Sure, there are knives that could have handled that thinness, but would you really say "that tomato was not sliced - those are not tomato slices"?

    For the knife to be too heavy as a fact, that all your purposes, preferences, and assumptions are universally applicable and correct. In science, even things generally accepted for all practical purposes as "facts" may still be theories. Despite the level of acceptance, understanding, or seeming universality of application, something could invalidate the hypothesis. This is built into the scientific method.

    Aesthetic standards of beauty regarding human proportions do not seem like good comparisons for these knife examples. If you're talking about what your eye finds appealing, that has nothing to do with the weight of the knife or the sharpness of its blade. I mean that if you were told the pictured drop point had a handle full of lead and a dull blade, your opinion of its appearance and relative beauty would not change based on appearance alone.

    As you say, there are factual foundations to our notions of what is beautiful, yet they remain our notions, and despite such biological hardwirings, there is wide latitude in what individuals find beautiful among other humans. For example, the neck stretching culture. I imagine various experts have demonstrated there is an ideal neck:face ratio or something related. If a culture finds an exaggerated version of that ratio beautiful, are they wrong, given the facts of beauty proportions?

    Perception of beauty in things can often be completely independent of relative practicality considerations such as weight and efficiency. Classic cars. So many designs are heavy, inefficient, and are not aerodynamic or practical in any sense relative to current vehicles. Their beauty seems largely independent of practical standards of function. Watches - any mechanical watch is too inaccurate and too heavy given the availability of quartz watches.

    My most used knife is my 10 inch chef's knife.

    1. See my reply above:

      This is a fact: the Cryo SS is a heavy knife for its size.

      Unpacking that, we have facts: in the market today the Cryo SS is one of the heaviest knives with a blade that size available. We could get every knife of the same size and weigh them and see--yes, the Cryo SS is among the heaviest.

      I think I could be comfortable conceding that the word "too" transforms the statement into an opinion but that is slicing the tomato awfully thin.

      As for the perceptions of beauty, studies of body proportion have shown strong, cross cultural, and consistent preferences for certain dimensions and relative spaces among features. They have been constant for a long time, as long as we have had pictoral representations of people. Even more interest, babies, folks that have little cultural indoctrination, seem to respond to these body proportions. I am not sure how, in the face of that sort of compelling empirical evidence, we can continue to cling to notions of beauty as being 100% subjective.

      As for the relationship to the beauty of a knife, I am still working on this, but Jim Nowka has a very good heuristic rule for knives. His rule, my experience, and research into conceptions of beauty over time have convinced me that there might be something like universal perceptions of beauty that could apply to knives. Its not necessarily a functional thing. A dull Loveless drop point is still beautiful to me. Its still a work in progress.

    2. Check out the beauty issue further, Tony. It really isn't as simple as your previous reading might have suggested.

      We've been seeing international homogenisation of culture for several centuries now, driven first by hard European imperialism, and now by soft American cultural imperialism.

      I agree with almost everything you're saying about knives; but with regard to human psychology and anthropology, there's more to the story.

      I suggest recent readings, as much work from the 1980's and before is lacking in its treatment of these cross-cultural issues.

    3. Agreed. Your understanding of the psychology and anthropology on this is pretty much based on outdated studies that have been heavily criticized. You're making claims that are far beyond what the evidence supports. Stick to reviewing the gear.

    4. You don't get away that easily. The two studies I linked to and the others that I read were all since 2008. Point me in the right direction to newer studies with contradictory claims or criticisms of the studies I read or the idea of empirically validated positive reactions to ideal body porportions.

    5. I think your argument and citations are compelling regarding perceptions of human beauty. Timely, as well, given the popularity of "biology vs social construct" relating to preferences.

      I wonder about this biology vs culture proportionality question as it has to do with things such as weight and body composition, instead of ratios relating to body part distances (where weight and body composition have little relevance). It is common to hear that the attractive female physique has gone from things such as pale and plump, to ultra-thin, to athletic, and all sorts of other "ideals." I wonder if this is really a change in what people consider beautiful and attractive, or if its a change in what is considered fashionable. I notice women often drive fashion trends independent of what men find attractive (see various clothing choices such as Ugg boots, and shirts that blouse out like maternity wear). I notice these trends carry to what women think is ideal (apparently now women care about having "thigh gap." I have yet to meet a guy that has said something like "she'd be attractive but she's got no thigh gap.")

    6. Tony, the studies you linked don't provide any evidentiary basis for a cross-cultural objective standard of beauty. I don't have access to the full text of both studies, but (as far as I can tell) they simply don't address what you're talking about.

      They are tiny samples of college students in one country. That kind of methodology can't even be used to draw broad conclusions about the country the study is in, far less the kind of international and historical conclusions you're reaching for.

      I do think that cross-cultural standards of beauty exist. In general, human beings are hard-wired to prefer symmetry to asymmetry, for example, and various kinds of extremes are considered unattractive across cultures.

      But I don't think that those standards can be as tightly defined as you imply; and I really think that you're reaching much further than your evidence allows.

    7. I also think that “biology vs. social construct” has always been a fallacious, pointless argument.

      It's pretty much settled: every aspect of human behaviour is tremendously socially constructed, but on a basis of biological predispositions.

      It's never “nature OR nurture”. It's always both.

  6. It`s not the size and weight of the tool / Johnson but what you do with it


  7. I really enjoyed your last post, a review on a piece of edc gear. Looking forward to the next one. :)

  8. Specs can not tell the whole story.

    I find the 20 point scale useful. It conveys information that I cannot qualify absent first hand experience. Specs are of course no substitute for use.

    Specs won't tell me how heavy a knife will feel in use due to the interaction of its center of gravity, the shape and size of my hand, and my particular musculoskeletal structure.

    The search for the "unified theory" of gear is a non starter for me. It could just be over my head, but I can't help but feel that it would be more at home in a junior college philosophy class. There comes a point for me that rhetorical analysis, however passionate, becomes a dull monotonous droning that sucks the joy out of this hobby.

  9. OBTW, Elle MacPherson does nothing for me. To each their own. It would be interesting to compare the attributes and virtues of the personalities of women rather than the physical only. Then the measure and depth of quality would be quite different I believe. I believe gear could be judged just the same way.

    1. I don't find her particularly appealing in this picture. Then again, she looks good for being nearly 50. Her legs are too skinny relative to her hips. I'm not sure about the 1:8 head:body ratio since I can't see her whole body in this picture.

      I think its reasonable to ignore personality attributes/virtues when evaluating the appearance of someone in a photo. Leave that stuff to the pageant judges.