Monday, August 10, 2015

Trolling for Hate: Magical Thinking

A recent study, conducted by Professors Jesse Prinz and Angelika Seidel of City University of New York, posed the following question:

You have one hour left in the Lourve in Paris.  There are long lines to everything, so you only have time to see one more thing.  Prior to your arrival there was a fire and the Mona Lisa was burned to a pile of ashes.  As a replacement, a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa was commissioned and hangs elsewhere in the museum.  Only the most experienced art historians could tell the difference.  Which would you go see: the pile of ashes of the REAL Mona Lisa or the near perfect copy?

Roughly 80% of people said they would go see the ashes.  

It makes little sense, but it does indicate how our thinking is altered by a perception of historical greatness and the power famous figures.  

In the gear world, as we pass out of the Golden Age of Gear and enter the Baroque Period, we are seeing an increase in what scholars like Prinz call "Magical Thinking."  The idea is simple--people attach unmerited significance (and are willing to pay an inordinate amount of money for) to an object simply because it has been associated with a famous person or maker of high popularity.  The recent explosion of OPMTs is a perfect example of this.  Guys that were famous for making intricate, complex, and beautiful knives are now pumping out dozens of one piece metal trinkets that go for insane prices, both direct from the maker and on the secondary market.  

A perfect example of this is the Brad Blount prybar (note: you could substitute any number of other OMPTs here--any of the Voxanes Zoo, the Cypop, anything, I just picked this one because it is the one I would like to buy but won't).  I will admit that I have often marveled at how simple and elegant the design is when it pops up in my Instagram feed, but one check online for prices quickly and permanently quelled my interest in acquiring one.  Its a prybar.  It opens bottles.  That's it.  And I had a hard time finding one under $200.  They were often made of very expensive metals like zirconium, but let's be honest this is "expensive" for the gear world, not in real world terms when there is gold, platinum, and rhodium out there.  In the end I could not figure out why they were so expensive.  It came down to this--people want a piece of something made by Brad Blount, whose Arrestors and other knives are incredibly cool looking.  They will accept anything, even a simple tool.  And so the JBB prybar, via Magical Thinking, has skyrocketed in price.

I am not immune to the power of Magical Thinking (even in the grocery story):


The same thing has happened with patches.  I recently commented on a Prometheus Design Werx Instagram post of an Emerson patch.  I simply wrote: "Knives not patches."  This is, of course, heresy to some and I was lambasted for my comment.  But the reality is, the patch craze is nothing more than a tactical stickerbook, a memento of non-functional items collected for the sole purpose of being collectible.  Third grade girls want stickers of Frozen characters.  Tact'ed out dudes in their 20s, 30s, and 40s want Emerson patches to velcro to their tactical bags and jackets.  Same impulse, same Magical Thinking.

To me, this is the most obvious sign that we have past the peak of the gear market.  Time and resources are being spent not on new and innovative gear (though some are still doing that) but on trinkets and bobs that show one's commitment and loyalty to the gear world and a particular brand of gear.  That's not something I care about and as a reviewer of tools it is a trend that seems to signify a turn away from utility towards something else.  And yes I know that none of us care about gear for a purely utilitarian reason, but there is some value in a nice knife, while there is no utility at all in a patch.

I also think it is unlikely that any of this swag will have value later on.  Remember your favorite band's pog?  No?  That's because no one cares about these things as they sober up over time.  Only exceptionally unusual things increase in price and have no inherent utility.  Leonardo Di Vinci's paintings are one thing, a PVC patch made to commemorate a brand is something entirely different.  The Mona Lisa will have value in 1,000 years.  An Emerson patch will not.  Its ashes might even have value, as silly as that would be. 


  1. Can't disagree with a single word.

  2. I've never understood the patches, stickers and tags companies give away and sell. Clearly they believe they will be valuable marketing when free or give some sort of prestige or decoration when sold, but I've never understood the mindset that would actually wear or display them. I tolerate branding on my possessions if it cannot be easily remove, but would prefer none. I can understand a makers desire to brand their products, but selling the brand alone baffles me.

    The current one piece tool craze is sad for many of reasons, primarily that it must be detracting from time and money that could be spent on better gear. That's not to say there aren't some beautiful and functional pieces being made, but there's a lot of wasteful overprices junk too.

    Good article, thanks.

  3. Can we add to this the increasing number of production collaborations with custom makers? Some are very nice and useful, but it seems like an increasing amount are nothing more than a famous name lasered into a mediocre knife. The perception seems to be that custom makers are better designers than production designers, to which I say Tommie Lucas and Sal or Eric Glesser.

    1. Also Jim McNair.

      I think Tony said he was the in-house designer of the Kershaw Knockout, a great, highly functional EDC blade with killer lines. The Knockout's visual DNA pops up here and there in other parts of KAI's lineup, e.g. the new Launch autos, and is very much to the positive.

      I think it's one of the handsomest sub-$100 knives of the past several years, although they have made it slightly less good looking (and cheaped it out a bit) in recent runs by removing the machined swoop pattern formerly found on the lock side of the knife.

  4. I got really into headphones for a while, and it didn't take long until I realized audiophiles are into more magic thinking bs than any other group of people. These guys are spending upwards of $10,000+ for things that at best provide minimal improvement, and often objectively degrade sound quality.

    They use all sorts of adjectives like "warm" to describe the improvements their gear adds to sound, but when actually tested, the gear literally makes the sound worse - and they defend by saying things like objective sound testing with computers is worthless because we are human, or even if the sound is worse, its worse in a way they prefer.

    There was a great blogger on this topic who vanished. He was an electrical engineer who wrote extensively about this issue, about "subjectivity bias," and actually designed a headphone amp that costs $200 and outperforms amps 100x the cost. I learned so much about perception v reality from his blog. These are some of his better posts on the subjective v objective issue and

    The subjectivity bias aspect is fascinating. Your expectations can actually make you perceive things as different from reality. The McGurk effect illustrates this well

    Look at wine. What a load of bullshit that is - but they've done tests where they switch expensive and cheap wines every way possible, and regardless of what a wine actually is, its the taster's perception of what the wine is that controls enjoyment. Swap the price tags, and people actually prefer the expensive wine.

    Look at Rolex watches. I have wanted a Seadweller for a while. I also like that new Blue Black GMT. I would never buy one, though; the prices in the past 10 years have gone astronomical! The funny thing is, people are happy to buy used watches for double what they were bought for new 10 years ago, and no one is talking about how Rolex is overpriced. People, including WIS people, have become so enamored by the "History" and "Pedigree" and "iconic design" (and "name on dial") aspects that they are willing to pay $10,000 for a watch that carries a multi-thousand premium for this stuff that has nothing to do with performance or design quality. Why does adding a ceramic dial to a Submariner (and new clasp on the bracelet) warrant the extreme price increase? A no-date Sub was $2800 in 2004. A new one is $7500! And look at Patek, and a bunch of other Swiss houses. I don't know if its the popularity of internet forums or a brilliance of marketing but somehow these brands realized "wow, people will still buy if we do arbitrary 20% price increases, such that the watches sitting in the case will cost more overnight, a couple of times every year!" What is in a name...

    1. Wine connoisseurship can definitely succumb to magical thinking at the high end -- there are a lot of tired, worn-out 35 year old $500 Bordeaux that get written up rapturously by wine tasters.

      Still, as long as you're playing in the under $100/bottle realm, I think wine quality is more objective than the skeptical conventional wisdom has it. Once you have a moderately experienced palate and get an idea of what traits to taste for and which categories of wine you like, a $50 wine from a good producer is likely to yield a better experience (more balanced, more complex secondary flavors, longer finish, no off notes) than a $10 wine from a good producer.

      Similarly, vintage years differ in predictable and nonarbitrary ways -- in some cases it's crystal clear.

      My wife has a good palate and I can accurately predict what she'll like (and it's the same stuff most wine critics would praise too). I sometimes serve her a glass "blind" and her judgments are rather consistent regardless of whether or not she can see the label or the price tag.

      I'd say, assuming equivalent background knowledge, wine appreciation is more objective than watches. Label worship aside, there's not much room in a glass of wine for idle decoration.

    2. Maybe, or maybe not.
      There is science demonstrating something like the placebo effect relating to wine - expectations can actually correlate to a different chemical reaction in the brain to the wine based on what someone thinks it costs. So its arguable that the experience actually would be "better" but what does that mean in relation to wine itself if you blind taste the same 2 wines and prefer both, depending on which bottle is labeled with the higher price tag?

  5. I think Peter Atwood has made a great living at this. I own one and spent way to much time and effort to WIN the chance to buy one. It's sitting in a drawer at home.

  6. I'd like to offer a counterpoint.

    Sometimes it's really more about aesthetic and design than about owning a piece of the maker. I saw the Cypop before I ever knew it was a Burnley design, and was drawn to it immediately. I was crushed to learn that secondary market inflation is well out of hand and that the design has fallen prey to gimmicky variants and add-ons, but at it's core I still think it's a solid and pleasing design. I don't want one because it's a Burnley design, but rather very much in spite of the fact that it is.

    I don't disagree that "magical thinking" is a driving force here, especially when you see people with shoeboxes full of prized doohickeys like some kind of dragon hoard. But I do think that sometimes a design is truly appreciated, whether aesthetically or for its perceived utility, beyond the name behind it.

    As for patches, I am conflicted. I collect patches and have for years before this became a popular trend among the EDC/gear crowd. I agree entirely with your assessment that they are the equivalent of stickers or baseball cards whose scarcity and popularity determine an entirely imaginary market value. That said, I collect patches because I consider them to be small affordable works of art.

    Despite being a fan in general, I have chosen not to engage much in the EDC/gear morale patch craze. Most of the designs popular with this crowd are (at best) snide pop culture references or even less interesting self-aggrandized branding. Often they are borderline (or even overtly) misogynistic or racist and cartoonishly violent. It's just not my bag.

    I feel magical thinking is much less an issue here, people collect patches for the same reason they collect anything. It's less of a "hand of the maker" concern and much more a Pokemon-esque "gotta have 'em all!" vibe. And really, except in the case of Prometheus, I don't think patch-making is taking anyone away from their primary knife-making practices. Patches may be a distraction or an annoyance as you encounter them in the community, but they are hardly standing in the way of progress in knife and gear design.

    The bubble will burst eventually, and as you rightly point out this will go the way of the pog.

    I absolutely love what you do with the blog. I have yet to purchase a knife without first consulting Everyday Commentary. It's one of the only gear sources I trust implicitly and I am glad that you have never been seduced by the allure of $300 zirconium lanyard beads, regardless of the maker.

    1. Thank you Adam. As a woman who enjoys EDC gear, I have felt too that the patches for no other reason put down groups of people, which is opposite of what everyday carry is about. The reality is all groups of people practice EDC, not just the select few.

      Fantastic article. Thanks for putting the time and thought into it. Makes me think.

  7. And please, add beads to the list. I don't get it. I have one, that I was gifted by a new maker. I carry it, and I smile when I do, but the smile is because I think about this community, and the acquaintances I have been lucky enough to make. I am not tempted to shell out tonnes of cash to add more beads to my gear collection. Great articles lately Tony. And I am glad you are finding balance between fatherhood and writing. Don't over extend for us. Fatherhood first, enjoy it.

  8. I'm not sure it'd be completely irrational to see the ashes. People choose it because it's the "real" thing and can only be seen there, whereas the other is a copy and copies can be seen anywhere. So I think it's the authenticity or genuinness of the ashes they choose. People buy fakes all the time though, so I think you're right that the historicity has something to do with it.

  9. I think an area that is fertile for EDC because it is weightless and takes up NO space is the phone app. I have none to speak of other than an alarm clock, calculator and such, but I think cell phones are a place where EDC can be based on utility and design esthetics without creating a conflict for users, since they can carry around hundreds with no weight or space penalty. What are the apps most useful for the "survival" aspect of EDC, or for the scientific advantages we might carry around? Which apps might be useful in terms of "bug out bag" assistance? I like my little notepad mini word processor for lists and notes, and the microphone/voice recorder is nice, too, for sidewalk musical performances. Flashlight apps are available, but probably of limited use for the audience here, as they are inefficient and lack throw, but maybe there is one that is superior. Or a couple that are superior in different ways. There are many possibilities. There is also the area of chargers/rechargers/power storage. Just some thoughts.

  10. And what's up Starlingear?
    Can I get an "amen' that this is the ugliest 'man jewelry' on the planet?

    1. Amen. Starlingear and Steel Flame occupy the same space in the market...tacky man jewelry.

  11. I have no use for small prybars, but I must say I use the hell out of my ZW pry bar. Mostly because it has a clip though. Oh and I once had a Vox snail and it was a terrible bottle cap opener. The leverage is all wrong. The penguin is a little better. The seahorse is terrible and don't get me started on that owl.