29 May 2009

The Story of Stuff

It is a comparatively rare thing that I come across something deeply affective. All truly great creative work possesses a spark of inspiration and genius that makes it of seminal and enduring worth. But not even the best of human creativity necessarily moves me in so fundamental a way that my life would in fact be poorer for not having experienced it. And sometimes deeply affective food or art or music is not so much exceptional in genius as that my acquaintance with it was serendipitous. It fills a peculiar hole in my soul which I did not know I had.

I've had several such affective encounters recently, but one of the most startling was watching The Story of Stuff. I won't rehearse the story behind it, which was recently profiled in the Times. Basically, a passionate environmentalist made a popular web movie on a shoestring budget about the consequences of consumption which succeeded where so many have failed before. It is short, simple, upbeat, factual, and brutally effective. And massively popular. I expect few who watch it are entirely unmoved.

I was deeply moved. I've long been a passive environmentalist, but have generally preferred the denial of hard realities to the burden of responsibility. The Story of Stuff has knocked me off the fence. We all know that willful ignorance does not change unpleasant facts. So if you haven't seen it, watch it now.

(The original video on the Story of Stuff website is the best quality, but I've also embedded the YouTube version here.)

28 May 2009

The Revulsion Gene

I've commented before that I am a liberal sojourning in a land of conservatives. (My self-denial of liberalism is directed at specific ideologies, not disposition.) While there are certain conservative causes I support, as hard as I've tried, I cannot evince within myself those basic attitudes that actuate most conservatives, like respect for authority and antipathy for cultural change. I can feel a liberal's anger at unfairness and discrimination, but not a conservative's disgust at disrespect of tradition and the foreign.

Nick Kristof has a fascinating column today about the psychological basis of the liberal/conservative divide. After his Daily Me column (my take), he was contacted by psychiatrists who informed him that changing disposition and bias is not that simple:

    Studies suggest that conservatives are more often distressed [than liberals] by actions that seem disrespectful of authority. . . .
    Likewise, conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust. People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.
    The upshot is that liberals and conservatives don’t just think differently, they also feel differently. This may even be a result, in part, of divergent neural responses.
In other words, the brains of liberals and conservatives may just be wired differently. Some of us may lack the revulsion gene that would enable us to be proper conservatives. Kristof links to a "disgust test" that I plan to take (when not at work), to help gauge one's moral disposition and aptitude for liberalism/conservatism. I'll post my score.

27 May 2009

The Happiness of Philosophers

Simon Critchley offers a view of happiness very different from that I gave a couple weeks back. He cites as his definition a quote from Rousseau:

    If there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.
Critchley explains the context of Rousseau's observation:

    Rousseau is describing the experience of floating in a little rowing boat on the Lake of Bienne close to Neuchâtel in his native Switzerland. He particularly loved visiting the Île Saint Pierre. . . . On the way to the island, he would pull in the oars and just let the boat drift where it wished, for hours at a time. Rousseau would lie down in the boat and plunge into a deep reverie. How does one describe the experience of reverie: one is awake, but half asleep, thinking, but not in an instrumental, calculative or ordered way, simply letting the thoughts happen, as they will.
Critchley connects this view of happiness with Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, but to me it seems much more Buddhist than Greek (as several commenters also note).

I myself have never found attractive the eastern view that utterly empty consciousness is the pinnacle of happiness. I don't think of a vegetable as happy. Critchley's description of unordered consciousness is likewise unattractive. That would be animal happiness. We are people.

I do think that freedom from anxiety is a necessary preliminary to happiness, but it is not sufficient. As previously suggested, one also needs loving and altruistic relationships and purposive activities. That holds true even for those of us who love contemplative living and have low social needs. And while individual dispositions vary, I'm not convinced it's a whole lot more complex than that.

That doesn't make happiness easy. But it's not complex.

25 May 2009

More Real than Real

I have an acquaintance who is a photographer and cinematographer. I once asked him over lunch what the single greatest advance in film making has been. He replied, "The quality of film stock."

You may expect just such a bland technical observation from a photographer, but I might agree. Much of the basic look of modern film is derived from the fantastic films and film processes cinematographers have available to them, and of course the great skill they employ in using them.

To me this is most evident in their color saturation. The stunning, rich colors that immediately differentiate a film shot today from one made in the 80s and earlier are all about the film used. I think some digital transfers of old films may get their colors punched up a bit, but those older films still just look incredibly bland by today's standards. In fact, I find that dated look a challenge to my enjoyment of them. Just watch A Bridge Too Far next to Band of Brothers. Both are seminal WW2 pics, but I find the immersion of of the latter so much greater, with its immense color and sound fidelity.

Though maybe "fidelity" is the wrong word. Today's film stocks reproduce images that are more real than real. Looking out my window at work, the trees do not look like movie trees. The light is flat, the colors bland, and as my eyes see them right now, they are thoroughly unspectacular. But I am not viewing them through masterfully processed 35mm Kodak VISION3. If only life looked as good as art.

But aside from saturation, incredible film stocks and even more incredible analog and digital processing allows a cinematographer to recreate any period look, or simply create a unique aesthetic that complements the film. Cinematographers like Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg) and Roger Deakins (Cohen brothers) are geniuses at this, as seen in films like Catch Me if You Can (Kaminski) and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (Deakins). I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about the look of those films. I guess I'm a very visual person.

For the average still photographer, film stock is inconsequential, since we've all traded film for digital. Old timers still get dewy-eyed over Fujifilm Velvia 50, a supersaturated slide film that too is more real than real. But who needs it with Photoshop. Even the rankest of amateurs, like me, can take a very average photo and, with a bit of tweaking in PS, make the colors look brilliant. There's no looking back now.

A shot of Stonehenge, before and after a Velvia-like color boost in Photoshop.

22 May 2009

That Old Knife Mojo

I liked this little meditation from a forum poster about his favorite carry knife, a well-used pawn shop purchase:

    I rescued this knife from a pawn shop for only $20 about a year ago, and it is worth that and more, to me. Both the clip and spey blades were sharpened numerous times, and both have lost some of their original shape. The knife may have been exposed to some corrosive material or gas, because there is tiny pin-point pitting and freckling on both blades. There is a slight wobble to the clip blade. It is far from mint, obviously, but though I have two mint 94's, a mint 8OT, and a mint 194OT still in their boxes, this is my favorite Old Timer to carry.
    Why? Because it has character. It is a working knife, and whoever owned it before me, whoever felt the need to sell the knife to make some money, was a working man. There are scratches on the bolsters from being carried in a pocket full of keys to the pickups and tractors on the farm and change for the coffee at the cafe. Maybe it was sharpened so much because it was used to turn little bull calves into little steers, or cut open feed sacks or baling twine from hay bales. Maybe it dressed out dove, quail, and ducks, not to mention rabbits and other varmints, and a few bucks. I have used it to dress out a few birds, myself, and to cut rope and to sharpen pencils for the official scorebook at some recent high school baseball games.
My daughter asked me the other day why I liked my knives so much. I said, "It's a guy thing. I can explain, but you won't understand." Well, if you understand the above, then you get it.

That old knife, and any good folder, is a metaphor for a certain masculine way of life that generations of men fought to escape, and having escaped, at least some of us now miss terribly. Most days now I spend upwards of 12 hours at a computer, but in my youth I worked on a farm, and miss it terribly. I've never done more honest and fulfilling work.

Back then I gave my pocketknives some hard use, as working men always have. The knife in my pocket right now will probably never be used for anything more serious that opening packages and paring fingernails. But it also serves as some vicarious connection to my youth and to the archetypal working man for whom I will always be nostalgic.

Addendum: Check out this great piece appearing in the Times Magazine on working with your hands. Notable quote, on the unnaturalness on the modern white-collar world: "It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work."

20 May 2009

Comic Books: All Grown Up (Part 3)

Of course, comic popularity is even bigger in movies than in print. Badly-animated children's cartoons and silly live-action TV series have given way to Hollywood blockbusters, and even to independent hits like American Splendor. It began with Superman (1978) and then Batman (1989), a decade later, but now with the massive success of the Spider-Man and X-Men movie franchises, comic-based movies are coming fast and thick. As many as came out in 2008, this year looks to be even more so the Year of the Comic Book Movie.

Naturally this is giving print comic popularity a bump, and at the same time, digital comic collecting has taken off. Comic enthusiasts began a number of years a go to scan their old comics into pdfs and share them with fellow fans on internet forums and newsgroups. The more ethical groups impose a moratorium on trading files of comics less than one year old. No one wants to hurt the publishers. But the publishers have been curiously slow to capitalize on this interest in digital copies of their back-issues.

But I predict that will change very soon, thanks to the iPhone/Touch. You can now purchase digital comic reader software for the iPhone/Touch (ComicZeal) that is specifically designed to read the most popular formats for scanned comics. The interface is a little rough (it is fairly new), but it works very well. And, the software publisher also has out-of-copyright comics available for download.

The major publishers will certainly make paid content available on iTunes sooner or later, and iVerse is leading the way with the backing of a number of smaller independents. The idea of iPhone comics has been dissed. The content problem (lack and cost thereof) can be solved, but there is not much to do about the small screen size. For me the Touch screen is just big enough, but just barely.

The majors (DC and Marvel) are already testing the waters with different comic-based products, in particular with voice-over narrated, semi-animated comics which Marvel calls In-Motion or simply motion comics. These are based on print comics and have some big talent behind them, like Joss Whedon. Most ambitiously, a 12-episode motion version of The Watchmen was published on iTunes, as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray. Unfortunately, at $20 on iTunes, the price is simply obscene.

But motion comics are really minimalist cartoons, not comics. Since a lot of enthusiasts are already trading scanned comics, and loading them on their iPhones/Touchs, the major publishers will not be long in getting their content up. In fact, Marvel has a digital comics subscription service, but they need more content, especially at $60 a year. And it's not available through iTunes. But it'll happen.

19 May 2009

Comic Books: All Grown Up (Part 2)

Comics have had some big ups and downs. I became a fan as a kid during (for me, at least) the golden age of "kid comics," the 70s and early 80s. (Collectors call it the Bronze Age, the Golden Age being the 30s and 40s.) While most of today's best-known superheroes and franchises were created in the 1960s or even earlier, their popularity was huge in the 70s. Comics could still be purchased new in any corner store and used at any bookstore. I spent countless hours digging through old stacks at the local Bookworm paperback exchange (there were no comic shops then). It was cheap and easy to collect complete sets spanning years. They were our video games.

In the late 80s and 90s, three important things happened. First, comic collecting turned serious, driving up prices and spurring publishers to put out a lot more product, which bloated the franchises and inevitably lowered the quality. Comic collecting became expensive, pricing kids out.

This may have contributed to the second change: most readers came to be older teens or adults, and the content came to reflect that. While the majors (DC and Marvel) submitted to the Comics Code Authority (a censoring body), mature-content independents came out of the underground and started grabbing market share. So the majors started non-Code subsidiary imprints, which have become very popular. Marvel withdrew from the CCA entirely in 2001, starting their own code.

Finally, I think comic art became stylistically homogenized in the 90s under the influence of superstar artists Todd McFarlane (Spawn), Jim Lee, and other manga-influenced artists and works popularized by creator-owned Image Comics. This was after my time, but I hate the "Image look," and I think it turned off a lot of fans.

And then collector prices collapsed, after pricing younger readers out of collecting. Demand fell off a cliff. Marvel was pushed into bankruptcy. Comics entered the new millennium with greatly diminished fortunes.

Now, however, comics are bouncing back, changed and much improved. First, the writing is very good. Literary talents like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Alan Moore have pushed the writing to a new level. All three authors have had a number of their works made or optioned as movies.

At the same time, comic art has now greatly diversified in style and is of the highest quality. The introduction of computerized colorizing and much improved printing has eradicated those awful, coarse half-tone colors that only look good in a Lichtenstein painting. In fact, just in the last five or so years, the art quality of comics/graphic novels has become stunning. The art has caught up with the writing. When asked when the heyday of comics was, one collector recently replied, "Right now!"

Max Collins' gritty Road to Perdition is a 304 page graphic novel that was made into a major film starring Tom Hanks. Time Magazine praised the original: "[It] has more to recommend it than just the source material for the movie. It turns out to be a neglected work of smart, tense, hard-boiled crime comix."


18 May 2009

Comic Books: All Grown Up (Part 1)

Now, comics are not necessarily comic books, and comic books may be in fact be graphic novels, and comics may be made into cartoons and cartoons into comics, but they are not the same thing. It's all a bit confusing, so I will explain a little.

First, there are comic strips (think, Peanuts), a newspaper staple that, like all things newspaper, are in decline and fighting to survive. But they are finding a second life online and loads of them may now be found on Comics.com.

Comic books are more than long-form comic strips, and most are not funny at all. And, while they used to be directed exclusively to preadolescents and adolescents, they now are published for an older demographic and are very diverse in style and content. Many are not about superheroes at all, or are even anti-superhero (The Watchmen), and most people have probably seen movies based on "comic books" and had no idea that was the source. One director even made a movie based on a comic and did not know that fact at the time (David Cronenberg and A History of Violence).

Since "comic book" is a misnomer and (often wrongly) connotes juvenile pulps, many of these modern, serious and mature works (at least in collected or longer form) are called "graphic novels." But that term is clunky and a little controversial, as much an effort to sound serious and mature, and a marketing ploy to reach mature readers, as anything else. So I just stick with "comics," by which I mean all illustrated serials and novellas, ranging from Maus to Spider-man to Archie. Illustration is really their only commonality—"comics is a medium, not a genre."

Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Maus, a biography of his father's survival of the Holocaust, is a stellar example of the modern "graphic novel," which unites the countercultural and mature subjects of underground and independent comics with the more popular style of mainstream comics.


15 May 2009

The Happiness of the Theoried Class

There are a blessed few who are so happy that they never reflect on the nature of happiness. I'm certainly not one of them. I'm a malcontent and think about happiness a lot. Of course, there are a lot of books on how to be happy, but I have no interest in junk psych or pep talks on positive mental attitude. I have no faith that there is some single, simple formula for perpetual bliss, though most happy folk certainly share some common denominators. For example, in one study those participants who watched the least TV were least likely to suffer depression. But cause and effect are very hard to determine.

Hard research on happiness comes to the basic conclusion that it is simple in theory and complex in execution. This much we all knew already. But thanks to my favorite columnist, David Brooks of the Times, this essay on the nature of happiness by Joshua Shenk just came to my attention, and I found it very compelling. (And yes, I just cited Shenk a couple of days ago, though I'd never even heard of him a week ago. Too strange.)

I won't summarize Shenk's essay (Brooks does), but basically happiness comes down to our capacity (both innate and developed) for resilience or adaptation in the face of disappointment or tragedy. Here is a long pull:

    [A]daptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.
    Vaillant [i.e., the article's expert] explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.
    At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship). . . .
    Most psychology preoccupies itself with mapping the heavens of health in sharp contrast to the underworld of illness. “Social anxiety disorder” is distinguished from shyness. Depression is defined as errors in cognition. Vaillant’s work, in contrast, creates a refreshing conversation about health and illness as weather patterns in a common space. “Much of what is labeled mental illness,” Vaillant writes, “simply reflects our ‘unwise’ deployment of defense mechanisms. If we use defenses well, we are deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic. If we use them badly, the psychiatrist diagnoses us ill, our neighbors label us unpleasant, and society brands us immoral.”
This is all interesting. But what is fascinating is that long-term "longitudinal" studies show that our deployment of defense mechanisms changes over the course of our lives, from more to less healthy and vice-versa, and upbringing, education, income, etc., the usual presumed predictors of happiness, determine relatively little and guarantee nothing. One study concluded that 50% of a person's happiness simply stems from one's dispositional "set-point" for happiness, with another 10% attributable to circumstances and 40% to factors more or less within our control (religiosity, healthy relationships, PMA, etc.).

That 40% is of course the critical bit, and in the end the science says that happiness is mostly about loving and altruistic relationships. “Happiness is love. Full stop,” Valliant says. “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”

13 May 2009

Baker, Baker

I was lamenting the other day the absence of mince pie at my local supermarket, but I was very pleased to have one (just one) turn up last Saturday for Mother's Day (yes, Tani loves it too). But, I confess that it was not quite as good as I remembered. Too sweet. Unfortunately it is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), one of the great scourges of our day. Anything sweetened with HFCS is yucky sweet. So, with no other options, I'm going to learn to make it myself. The difficulty of pie crusts has stopped me in the past from pie making, but I'm steeling myself for another go. I have no other choice, it seems.

12 May 2009

Missing the Train

A follow up to yesterday's post, I came across this article in the Times about a car-free community in Germany. The main subject is fine, but more interesting to me are the subsidiary considerations of (sub)urban planning, mass transit, etc., in the States. For example,

    In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency is promoting “car reduced” communities, and legislators are starting to act, if cautiously. Many experts expect public transport serving suburbs to play a much larger role in a new six-year federal transportation bill to be approved this year, Mr. Goldberg said. In previous bills, 80 percent of appropriations have by law gone to highways and only 20 percent to other transport.
This comparative lack of support for mass transit in the States should be the first thing addressed in pursuit of more more sustainable carbon policies. Light rail initiatives here in Utah County have consistently failed for want of funding, while enormous state and federal investment has been made in highways. And the roads are still massively congested. With budgets in collapse, I have no optimism about any change in the short-term, but when the economy picks back up and fuel prices skyrocket, as of course they will, perhaps light rail will get another chance.

11 May 2009


President Obama is still pushing hard to enforce legislated biofuel production and usage, despite widespread bankruptcy in the biofuel industry. This is a policy I disagree with. While biofuels may decrease greenhouse gas emissions (it may in fact increase them) and might reduce (very slightly) dependence on foreign oil, the rush to biofuels has driven up food prices, increasing poverty and instability in the poorest of countries. It has been broadly condemned even by many environmental progressives, because it is simply a repugnant trade of one set of evils (unsustainable oil consumption) for another (food scarcity, deforestation, etc.).

Obama is so sensible, and manning up to some many things, I don't know why he is supporting this particular failed Bush policy. The solution to our oil dependence are things like increased mass transit, urbanization and environmentally-responsible consumption. This is universal knowledge. Biofuels are just another enabling mechanism for what Bush infamously termed a non-negotiable "Amercan way of life." Which is, single drivers in large SUVs commuting to urban employment from distant suburbs to earn lots of money to buy mountains of cheap goods transported 3000 miles from sweatshops and toxin-spewing factories in the impoverished third world produced by workers making $7 per 14-hour workday.

As noble as this American way of life is, it is not sustainable, and biofuel will not change that fact. One estimate is that, "For the United States, attaining 20% biofuel content will require it to use 100% of its current corn production to power cars rather than feed people." Hardly a big-picture solution. I cannot guess Obama's intentions, but he must know this. But whatever he knows about biofuel, he also certainly knows that there is no will in America to end this way of life. End it will, of course, and likely a long emergency will end it. But that's another topic.

09 May 2009

EDC Knives: A Presidential Folder

And so we reach the official end of EDC knife month. The sixteen dense posts that I've written for it were honestly a bit too much work to be entirely fun, but I've enjoyed the exercise and learned from it. I learned first of all, again, that single-topic blogging can turn into a chore, however much I like the topic. So enough of that. I conclude with an interesting historical note.

Items from the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana are now on display at the Library of Congress. I was interested to see that the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets when he was assassinated included a beautiful white-handled, (apparently) four-blade "swell back congress" pocket knife (make unknown). I've observed previously that, until most recently, a pocketknife was the one tool most every man carried and was a fundamental male accessory. In fact, a Lincoln scholar, Joshua Shenk, remarked that "back then a pocket knife was like a cell phone."

Lincoln's personal effects on the night of his assassination

That is why one early colleague of Lincoln, Robert Wilson, noted the exceptional fact that, not only did Lincoln confess to him that he suffered from melancholy, but "he told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never did dare carry a knife in his pocket. And as long as I was intimately acquainted with him . . . he never carried a pocket knife" (Shenk, Lincoln's Melancholy, 23). As president, however, and at other times, he apparently did. In fact, it is claimed that one other of Lincoln's folding knives is not only known, but recently was displayed. That knife is in poor shape, perhaps because Lincoln was reported to be "inordinately fond of whittling." But the knife with him at Ford's Theater is in excellent condition, and quite beautiful.

Lincoln's knife

I've blogged on the great variety of classic folding knives now coming out of China. Designers of these knives are drawing much inspiration from classic patterns, or copying them outright. The knives produced under the brand U. S. Classics are said to be patterned on classic knives of the 1920s, 30s and 40s (the "Golden Age"), from the collection of C. A. Shelley of Salt River, KY. And they are very inexpensive. I have one on me today that looks quite a lot like Lincoln's, though there is another pattern currently available that even carries the exact shield. As an enthusiast, I'm intrigued that this pattern is, after almost 150 years, still being produced and that I could own a near-replica of that presidential folder for myself. Tempting . . .

U. S. Classic four-blade congress with second-cut bone stag handles (curse that annoying blade logo)

08 May 2009

EDC Knives: Tactical Makers IV

SOG: SOG Specialty Knives was started in 1986 to produce and market a single knife, the S1 Bowie, an improved replica of the famous MACV SOG fixed-blade combat knife issued during the Vietnam War. It was a great success, and led to the elite U.S. Navy SEALS adopting SOG’s latest-gen SEAL Team combat knife for duty.

As they grew, SOG moved much of their production from Seki, Japan, to Taiwan and China, to lower costs, and introduced a range of both fixed blade and folding tactical knives in a competitive price range. Although they have a reputation for fighting knives, several of their folders are very practical EDC blades. I gushed before about my SOG Flash I. It’s feather light (1.3 oz.), carries deep, opens fast and closes easy. It just gets it all right. While their quality is not quite Benchmade-caliber, I like SOG knives. A lot.

SOG Flash I

Smith & Wesson (Taylor Brands LLC): Taylor Brands LLC is the parent company of Schrade, Old Timer and Uncle Henry folding knives (mostly folders, anyway), and “over eighty other brands” of other knives and whatnot. Those additional 80+ unnamed brands certainly include the OEM manufacture of knives for many firearm, outdoor, and sporting goods companies. They are dull designs made overseas in anonymous factories from generic stainless steels, cheap plastics and undistinguished woods. They are Cheap Chinese Clones with slick commercial branding. They are not even value knives, just well-marketed consumer knives. So well marketed, in fact, that if you’ve ever bought one, I guarantee you paid too much for it.

Taylor’s principal tactical knife brand is Smith & Wesson. You will see them in knife cases everywhere next to true value and premium brands, but don’t be fooled. They are not in the same league. I owned one, briefly, but returned it. The cheap plastic blade lock did not work, the blade screening was smeared, and overall the quality was shabby. I thought it must be a counterfeit, and said as much to the seller, who informed me that they were located just five miles from Taylor Brands LLC and that it certainly was not a counterfeit. My mistake. It was genuine dreck. I took the refund and did what I should have the first time. I bought a Kershaw Oso Sweet.

Spyderco: If combat tacticals have a grand old man among makers, it is Emerson. But if EDC work knives have one, it is Spyderco. Spyderco led the way in the early 80s by introducing EDC knives that had all the features we regard as genre-defining today: light-weight polymer handles, easy one-handed opening and closing, light weight, great blade steel, etc. They made the pocket-clip a conventional feature and greatly popularized the serrated blade. Their serrations are still as good as they get. Spydercos look ferocious, but those stubby, wide, serrated blades are designed for work, not defense. But, no doubt, a lot of guys love that (dare I say) "goth" aesthetic.

Spyderco designed an amazingly smart and effective knife in their original C01 Worker, and while they have produced a huge range of knives, most every Spyderco bears a striking resemblance to that first. Perhaps no knife manufacturer has ever stayed so loyal to an archetypal design. Certainly they have been imitated, and you may mistake another knife for a Spyderco, but you will never mistake a Spyderco for anything else.

Spyderco Delica 4, one of Spyderco’s most popular current models.

Next up: Knife month concludes with a presidential folder.

07 May 2009

Not Your Typical Rock Star

I came across this very recent photo of Neil Young performing and loved it, so I'm sharing.

Not a lot of 63 year-old rock stars out there still laying it down. I've posted on Young before and still think he is an American original. His work with Buffalo Springfield was very influential. When supergroup Rush (also pushing retirement age and still selling out arenas) did an album covering the classic rock that most influenced them, two of the eight tracks were Springfield songs with one written by Young himself ("Mr. Soul"). We took a vacation when I was a kid on which we listened to nothing but a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 8-track, and one other tape I can no longer recall. I rediscovered Young as a college student when I heard a track from his MTV Unplugged album on the radio. I bought it immediately. It's still brilliant. Wikipedia says he's sold seventy-nine million albums worldwide as of 2008.

Young's personal musical hero, "the master," is Bob Dylan. Young has received less attention than Dylan, of course, and Dylan at his best is shockingly great. Few would dispute that. But few would also dispute that Dylan is hugely inconsistent. He has bounced back in recent years somewhat (I like "Modern Times"), but for now I'm just an early Dylan fan (at least until a much-needed Rick Rubin-produced album comes out).

Neil Young, on the other hand, is consistently Neil Young. Most of his notable hits were early, but I think his vast body of recording, while genre-spanning, is more of a single piece. Certainly more new work is yet to come, and he is undertaking a huge remastering project of old. But more releases of early boots like Sugar Mountain would be grand.

06 May 2009

EDC Knives: Tactical Makers III

Gerber: Gerber Legendary Blades is another Oregon knife maker, owned since 1987 by the Finnish cutlery company, Fiskars. But Gerber has a long and distinguished history. It was started in 1939 by advertising man Pete Gerber, who began by reselling the famous knives of custom maker Dave Murphy. This is thought to be the first custom/commercial knife maker collaboration. Gerber has continued to work with custom designers throughout its long history. My first quality knife, purchased as a teen, was a brass-framed Gerber Folding Sportsman I, designed by Al Mar and based on the Ron Lake Interframe. I still have it, in fact.

Gerber Folding Sportsman I

Gerber has always done a very good job of staying relevant in ever-changing markets. Recently they have done this though innovation in multitools. They are the second leading seller of multitools after Leatherman. They also continue to market a range of knives, including many tacticals. The most famous is probably their folding version of the Applegate-Fairbairn combat knife, though their knives tend to be more sportsman-tactical in design than combat-tactical. Their products vary in price and quality, but overall they are good, if not exciting, knives. However, most current Gerbers do not stir enthusiasts much, due to their use of inexpensive (or at least anonymous) steels and other materials, as well as quite conventional designs.

Ka-Bar: Like so many venerable companies, Ka-Bar has long since been swallowed up by a large conglomerate, in this case Cutco. If you know anything about Ka-Bar, you certainly know their most famous knife, the Ka-Bar USMC fighting/utility knife, over a million of which were made and distributed to troops during WWII. It was introduced as a hunting knife in 1898 and was literally picked out of a catalog by the US military to replace the inadequate knives that troops originally entered that war with.


Ka-Bar still makes the USMC in Olean, NY, but it also manufactures several models of tactical folders in Asia that are highly regarded as excellent values. Their Warthog looks stubby and ill-proportioned, but in fact is highly functional, with good mid-grade steel and excellent G10 scales. For $18 retail, it is an amazing value. Ka-Bar’s Dozier, named after its famous designer, is also a great value and comes in a large range of colors and blade types. It is a classic, basic EDC knife. Many a knife enthusiast, when he needs a knockabout user, will reach for a Warthog or Dozier.

Kershaw: Kershaw Knives was started by former Gerber Legendary Blades salesman Pete Kershaw in 1974. Early knives were all produced in Japan and in 1977 Kershaw was acquired by Japan’s KAI Group. However, most of their knives are now produced in their Tualatin, Oregon, production facility.

Kershaw really did not become a major player until it introduced its first Ken Onion-designed models in 1998. These continue to be its best-loved knives, which is amazing longevity for a tactical knife model. The Onions are assisted opening knives, one of the first, and Kershaw bet big on their Speed-Safe assisted opening design. It was a very savvy move. Assisted opening knives have become hugely popular and their early commitment to this design has put Kershaw in an industry-leading position. They have continued to innovate and produce first-rate knives, from their least to most expensive models.

Award-winning Kershaw 1850 Tyrade with a bi-metal blade, combining the optimal qualities of tough 154CM steel for the spine and hard CPM D2 tool steel for the blade edge.

Next up: Tactical Makers IV

05 May 2009

Doubting Ditchkins

There are two new books out that take on, in different ways, the New Atheism of (especially) Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom one author calls collectively "Ditchkins." These two bestselling authors have provoked a very strong response, but I have come across little that really breaks new ground. But these two new titles look very good. I've read other books by their authors and they are both very bright lights.

David Bentley Hart is an Orthodox theologian who authored an excellent piece of contempory theodicy in The Doors of the Sea, among other works. His new anti-atheism book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (brief reviews here and on Amazon). Rather than rehashing old Aquininan arguments for the existence of God, he examines how Christ and Christianity have created our contempory "humane" view of humanity itself. He is not a easy author, and this recycles his previous work to a large extent, but this looks to be an accessible entry into Hart's thought.

Even more interesting to me is the new book by Terry Eagleton, a British scholar and cultural and literary critic who must be the world's most articulate Marxist. His takedown of postmodernism in After Theory was tremendous, coming as it did from a PoMo fellow-traveller. I won't survey his new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, since Stanley Fish does it thoroughly, but it is a very unexpected defense of religion from someone who is not (in any obvious way) religious.  Fish speculates on why he wrote this book, and concludes: "He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels."

04 May 2009

A Most Pleasing Ghost Story

A shoutout to Mr. Fweem for conjuring McBroom's Ghost. I remember this book very well, though I'd forgotten the title. Actually, I just remember keenly the illustration of villainous Heck Jones imperiously eating his shoofly pie. Nowhere else have I ever seen pie eating portrayed as an act of intimidation. It is a small stroke of genius.

As a foodie adult thinking back on it, for several years I've been wanting to try shoofly pie. I have little chance of finding it locally. These kinds of traditional pies are rarely sold commercially. They've even quit stocking mince pie at my local Smith's, which I'm am very sorry about (I still look every time, and hope). But it does not look hard to make. I expect I'll have to give it a go myself.

01 May 2009

EDC Knives: Tactical Makers II

Cold Steel: Cold Steel is a love-‘em-or-hate-‘em company. Part of that comes from the fact that their founder and president, Lynn Thompson, is an obnoxious and offensive blowhard. Also, most of their products are designed, or at least marketed, as combat/defensive knives, which alarms the alarmists and delights redneck wannabe warriors everywhere (and maybe a few real warriors, too). Adding to this alarm and delight are promotional videos of Thompson slicing the arms off meat-filled biker jackets with his blood-drinkers. (I refuse to link, but you can easily find them online.)

While Cold Steel collaborates with some custom makers, the flamboyant Thompson is himself involved with product designs, and it clearly shows. Many of their knives are big, scary-looking and impractical, and have a certain fantasy knife flair. Admittedly they are high-quality, though you pay for it. Cold Steel makes a few knives that I would certainly love to own (especially the Hatamoto), but they are overpriced. Nevertheless, as the chief popularizer of the ubiquitous tanto blade, Cold Steel has certainly been influential and they produce a number of quality of EDC knives among their tamer offerings.

CRKT: Columbia River Knife and Tool is a relative newcomer, started by two former Kershaw employees in 1994. From the beginning CRKT collaborated with custom designers to produce very innovative knives, in terms both of technology and design. Many companies cultivate a unique niche and style, but CRKT produces a very wide range of products, most quite distinctive. All of their knives are made in Asia and most use mid-grade materials, but their prices suitably reflect that. In this sense they are a value maker. Most of their knives can be had for less than $60 and several for less than $20. But their designs are very fresh and their quality ranges from good to excellent.

Like Kershaw and SOG, CRKT are leaders in assisted-opening knives. But their very popular Kit Carson-designed M16/M21 line is all manual, though these knives are still innovative. They feature CRKT’s AutoLAWKS dual-locking system that prevents accidental disengagement of the blade’s linerlock. CRKT may not have the diehard fan base of the upmarket brands, but I think they are a great bang for the buck.

Emerson: I’ve mentioned previously that custom knife maker Ernest Emerson was an early innovator and trendsetter whose knives became archetypes of the modern tactical. His earliest blades were art knives, but being a martial artist, he observed that while fellow martial artists trained with fixed blades they of course carried folders day to day. To create a combat folder, he stripped down and modified his art designs while continuing to use the highest quality materials. The resulting Viper combat folders went through several iterations. The sixth version, renamed the CQC6, was commissioned by the US Navy SEALs in the mid-80s and was adopted both by them and many other Special Forces units worldwide. Thus his knives became both standards and status symbols among the military.

Emerson CQC-11

Demand soon far outstripped one knife maker's capacity, and Emerson collaborated with Benchmade and other commercial makers to create production versions of his knives. In 1996 he and his wife started their own production knifeworks, Emerson Knives, Inc. While Emerson does carry a couple of value, foreign-made models, most of their knives are made at their Torrance, CA, factory and are priced in the $200-$250 range. Many models serve very well as EDC knives, but as true tacticals, they are on the large size. Emersons do not use the latest wondersteels or employ the latest superlocks. They are simple workhorses, but to own one is to own an icon.

Next up: Tactical Knife Makers III