Music, hi-fi, Apple, food, quality spiritous beverages, tech, science.
(not a Portland-based singer/songwriter)
A not-at-all brief history of my multitool and knife ownership
I’m going to ramble a while. You should feel free to skip.
The keychain multitool era
Back in college, Thom was cleaning out his old room at his parents’ place and I saw that he was getting rid of a basic Victornix “Swiss army” knife—a pretty simple affair that had only (if I recall correctly) a small knife, tweezers, a nail file, and crappy scissors. It also had a slot for one of those plastic toothpicks, which had gone missing.
And so I learned that it was handy to have a knife on you, even if it was mostly just to open the mail or a stubborn package. Later in college, I started working in the school’s Computer Science department, and did enough disassembly of computers that I tired of frequently seeking out a Philips screwdriver. So I took a little of my minimum-wage salary and bought a Leatherman Micra, which had a surprisingly useful screwdriver on it, as well as some impressive scissors, and a sharp knife1.
The Micra was a faithful companion for a couples of years. I lost it on the graduate interview trail (probably due to taking it off my key ring to open a beer for someone). I replaced it with an identical model, then lost that again under similar circumstances two years later at Bryan’s wedding. I took a look at the company’s line before buying a replacement, opting for the Squirt P4 after I realized how useful a set of pliers would be. Around the same time, I noticed that my buddy Char had some nice pocket knives; in particular the name Kershaw stuck with me.
The P4 lasted five years, until I foolishly tried to use the file as a pry bar, snapping it. I availed myself of the company’s liberal warranty service. To its credit, the company shipped me a brand new tool, the Squirt PS4 2. But in the back of my mind, I had the idea to get a larger pocket knife.
The pocket multitool era
A year later, Woot had a deal on the Leatherman Freestyle CX, which certainly looked like an impressive enough knife, and included a pair of pliers to boot. In fact, I liked it so much that I went ahead and upgraded to the Leatherman Skeletool CX which added a full multitool complement to the Freestyle’s basics, and gave the Freestyle as a gift.
The beginning of the pocket knife era
Another year later, Woot had a special on a real, honest-to-god pocket knife, the Kershaw Vapor III. At $20 and 3.5”, it was a serious knife for the money, and is still the biggest I have. I took to alternating between carrying the Vapor and the Skeletool—I liked the vapor a lot, but wasn’t always comfortable traveling without the Skeletool’s additional functionality.
I began reading up on pocket knives after this, in part to know where I could and couldn’t carry the Vapor—some states and municipalities outlaw concealed knives over 3” or even 2.5” or 2”, which I’d argue is silly, particularly when concealed hand guns are legal—and learned a bit about them, including learning that while switchblades are still very much illegal, the legally-distinct category of “assisted open” knives is perfectly fine.
So I started eying assisted open knives, and, recently, Woot came through for me again, selling the Kershaw Leek. It’s smaller than the Vapor at 3”, but the price was quite good and the assisted open feature sold it. I got it, loved it—the assisted opening makes it so satisfying and fun—and started eying other Kershaws.
In short order, I grabbed the short-but-stout Kershaw Vapor which seemed very cool for a street price of around $15—and is, but was shortly appropriated by my wife—the Swerve, which was cheap enough for for an impulse buy and combined the fat-bellied blade of the Shuffle with the Leek’s assisted open and longer blade.
For now I feel like I have sufficient variety and novelty in my collection, but I’d still like a) a very small knife such as the Kershaw Chive or un-released Ember that could be concealed in my wallet and would adhere to some more conservative knife laws of places I may visit, and at some point I’d like to have an assisted open knife with a longer blade (Kershaw Rake, Blur, or Knockout). And then maybe I’ll pare down some redundancy. Something about owning more than five pocket knives seems like it’s crossing a creepy line…
The beginning of the one-piece multi-tool era
So, as I carry “just knives” more, I realized it would be nice to have an auxiliary something to supplement it. In my knife wanderings, I saw Leatherman’s line of one-piece pocket tools (formerly made by PocketToolX), the similar Gerber Shard, and, from there, the beautiful and obscenely expensive work of Peter Atwood 3, and the sea of Atwood knockoffs that are out there.
So, at some point I’ll talk a bit more about the keychain-size Leatherman models I’ve owned, some more about the Skeletool and Freestyle, and then give some thoughts on the Kershaw models I have. Maybe I’ll agonize over future knife purchase in this public forum.
The one-piece multitools are cool, cheap, and convenient, although usefulness varies. I have some thoughts on the category, and give the price of most of them (save the Atwoods), I’ll probably do some full reviews of these models in addition to the knives I have on hand.
And maybe I’ll complain about how sometimes I feel like “weird knife guy” even though I totally don’t think that’s what I am, and about how dumb many knife laws are. But I’ll probably keep that to a minimum and focus on the art and utility of these devices, as stated previously.
I’ve recently realized a theme that unites many of my hobbies—tools.
Stereo equipment, apps, computer hardware, electronic gadgets, cars, programming languages, and even some mechanical tools (more on that one in a minute)—I find them all fascinating, and I like the ones that are well-made, a cut above the baseline that some people make do with.
Stereo equipment enhances my enjoyment of music, but I like the science and artistry of the gear itself. I use Apple gear because it helps me enjoy my work—but sometimes, it’s the use of the gear itself that motivates me to work. Same for a number of apps—I was bad at keeping calendars and to-do lists before those apps became common place, and, to a lesser extent, before I had them with me all the time. Even now, I’m not 100% satisfied with my to-do system, and it results in some disorganization and procrastination. With cars, I’ve always liked driving, but I like it so much more since I got my Mazda 3.
So tools can make work more pleasurable, but the cart can come before the horse and convince me to pick up new habits. I bought a FitBit, and now I’m more active. I liked Field Notes on principle, started buying them, and then came up with things to put in them. Now I have a series of cool travel logs/journals to keep track of where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
Getting philosophical, maybe what I love about tools is the potential I represent. But that’s beside the point. This is all interesting in and of itself, but I’m working toward a practical point here.
Knives and multitools
Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve gradually begun to appreciate the utility of carrying a good pocket knife and/or multitool. I’ll have more to say about that journey later, but in the mean time, suffice it to say it’s a useful tool, and it grants you the ability to do and accomplish things you might otherwise not be able to.
Read up on knives and multitools a little bit and you’ll quickly either find yourself in a) gun nut self defense territory; b) crazy survivalist territory; or c) both of these. But as I learned from Alton Brown, a sharp knife is safer than a dull one, and in the end, knives are just tools, not scary weapons—at least, that’s what they are to me.
So, this is the beginning of some new posts covering various pocket knife and multitool acquisitions. Hopefully I’ll bring a utilitarian, down-to-earth perspective that you can appreciate if you’re neither violent nor crazy—hopefully along the same lines as my strengths as an audio reviewer1. Here’s to more discussion of well-made, useful things, and maybe occasionally over-priced things.
At least, I hope those are my strengths. ↩
Mo’ money, mo’ Beats
So the Apple/Beats thing went through. I’ll go ahead and claim that I got it largely right—the talent acquisition played a big part (as evidenced by both statements about Dre and Iovine, as well as hints at “big things to come”), as did the music service1. Most statements by Apple personnel have emphasized those two factors, while adding that, hey, their headphones make some good money.
Interestingly, the breakdown was something like $500 million for the streaming service, $2.5 billion for the headphone business. the dollar value doesn’t seem to match Apple’s priorities. Apple spent $3 billion on a talent acquisition and to get a leg up in the streaming game, and got a profitable accessory business to help justify that premium price tag.
I signed up for a trial with the Beats Music service a couple weeks ago—maybe more on that in a later post, but it’s good. Audio quality is surprisingly good (especially from a company that makes thoroughly mediocre headphones), and the catalog seems solid, but the music discovery features are my favorite part so far. ↩
If you can’t Beat ‘em…
So. Lots of smoke starting late last week about Apple buying Beats1 for somewhere around $3.2 billion, make it their largest acquisition ever—though to keep that in perspective, Google paid almost the exact same sum for Nest.
Just as Google’s acquisition of Nest brought in "father of the iPod" Tony Fadell, this seems to be, at least somewhat, a talent acquisition2. If, the rumors are to be believed, this could result in music industry insiders Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre coming onboard at Apple. In terms of Apple’s current structure, I don’t see much room for them to contribute, except as liaisons to the larger music industry.
So it’s hard for me to imagine that, when you put a dollar value to it, those two people can account for much of the $3.2 billion price tag. Apple doesn’t make that much selling music. Maybe they’re hoping for some growth, but it’s hard for me to imagine there’s that much room for growth in the digital music market.
Unless Apple wanted to expand into being an entertainment production company, not just a distribution company. Think of it like what Netflix and Amazon are doing. Then again, being an electronics company and an entertainment producer hasn’t always worked out well for Sony.
Ultimately, this helps the rumored acquisition make sense, but it’s hard to view it as a major factor, unless Apple has some really big plans for these two men that I can’t foresee—which is certainly possible.
Apple’s got a “radio-style” streamlining music service—that is, iTunes Radio acts like Pandora, in that it plays music for you, and you don’t have a whole lot of control over what that music is. You can shape it some, sure, but ultimately, what Apple’s algorithms pick is what you get.
I can see why Apple launched iTunes Radio this way—the licenses/royalties were no doubt cheaper, and it serves as a tool to sell more iTunes downloads.
But, Spotify showed strong demand for an “all-you-can-play” streaming service in which you actually get to choose which songs and/or albums you hear, and in which order—that is, a streaming service that gives you something like the biggest iTunes library in the world. Maybe lots of people don’t purchase music anymore, but lots of them will pay $10 per month for legal access to a huge library.
This is a piece of the Apple’s missing, and it’s a a piece that Beats has. I started a free trial this week, and it’s actually a cool service. I had never seriously considered purchasing a streaming subscription, as I still buy a lot of music, but Beats enables a spontaneity that I don’t get buying CDs3. I also like Beats’ “the Sentence” feature, which is the best implementation I’ve seen of a “radio” feature. You give some information about the situation your’e in, how you feel, and what genre you want to hear, and you get a solid stream of continuous music.
But—it’s hard of me to see why Apple would pay $3.2 billion for this. It’s a feature they can build easily, if they can get the licenses (which I hear aren’t transferable by Beats in the event of a sale anyway—citation needed4). And buying Beats doesn’t get them a huge user base.
So, again, this adds to the picture we’re getting of Apple’s (theoretical) motivation for this acquisition, but doesn’t come close to explaining it entirely.
That brings us to headphones, which, on paper, are the clearest reason to buy Beats. I heard something about $1 billion in annual revenue, which means that if Apple kept running Beats as a separate entity, the acquisition might pay for itself relatively quickly.
But would Apple do that? Beats is, essentially, a fashion/lifestyle brand, but Apple already has that. And it seems very un-Apple to have any brand compete with the almighty Apple.
On the other hand, there’s a demographic issue here. I’ve heard statistics that the African American demographic seems to lean toward Android phones (PDF link, check page 20). And Apple as a brand has many assets, but I wouldn’t list street creed as one of them. So, maybe Apple keeps the Beats brand around to get access to a demographic they’re having trouble reaching. There’s a lot of data you need to make this case convincingly, and I don’t have it, but this could be the most compelling case.
Apple certainly isn’t buying Beats for technology or audio expertise. Beats headphones are, sound-wise, nothing special. They punch way under their price class—I’d value the Beats headphones I’ve heard at around a fifth of their retail price. They’re mediocre cans with an (apparently) appealing visual design and great marketing.
Plus, Apple’s capable of good audio engineering when they focus on it. As much as they’re maligned, Apple’s EarPods are an impressive feat of engineering when you consider how little they cost to manufacture (i.e. little enough that they can be given away with other products) and how hard it is to make earbuds that sound good. Apple’s In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic are also pretty good. They were a better value when they were released five or six years ago, but they show that Apple can make a good-sounding pair of headphones when they try. And even the old iPod HiFi, which was heavily criticized, sounded pretty great. It didn’t sell, but the hardware was good.
So somehow, I think Beats’ headphones are the key to this. Not the hardware itself, but the brand. The Beats brand has a lot of value if Apple can leverage it to sell more iPhones, or to make a move into the high-end (in terms of price) headphone market. Tyll Hertsens even thinks that turning Beats into a high-quality product wouldn’t be that hard5, and I trust his opinion when it comes to all things headphones.
So what have we learned? The executive-level talent at Beats has value, as does its streaming service, but probably not enough to justify a $3.2 billion purchase.
The headphones have the value on paper, but that value doesn’t reside in the hardware, it resides in the brand. For a company so focused on its own brand, Apple will have to do some really novel things to realize that value, though. So if this rumor is true, then Apple must have some plan for how to do so, and I’m really curious to see what it is.
Am I still supposed to append “by Dr. Dre” to the end of that? ↩
I won’t say “acquit-hire”. There’s enough pointless business jargon floating around already; no point bloating it further. ↩
Yes, CDs. iTunes 256 kbps AAC files sound good, but I feel like having uncompressed CD quality is great for future-proofing. FLAC download sites are becoming a bigger thing, but until I fill my CD rack, having the physical object is still an asset, not a liability. ↩
Which I write because I’m too lazy to track down the source. Deal with it. ↩
Tyll also talks at length about headphones as a part of Apple’s “wearables” strategy, pushing the idea of “smart headphones”. I think this is definitely in the cards, but Apple does’t need Beats to do it. After all, they already make the most-used set of headphones in the world. ↩