Monthly Archives: February 2007

Metal, exact

When my father was a boy, he lived near a town that had a blacksmith. He liked to hang around the blacksmith, and eventually the blacksmith taught him a few things, and he made himself a pocketknife on the foundry. Boys don’t hang onto treasures forever, and he dropped that knife in a stream. A few years ago we planted a couple thousand longleaf pine seedlings on part of that property. We walked past the sad spot and I caught him peering into those waters to see if his knife was still down there and some trick of the current had turned it up. But it is a fact that memories last longer than high carbon steel, especially in warm East Texas streams; and the gift of the blacksmith lasted far longer than the pocketknife.

Between the late 1930s and when I was a boy, the steel used in most pocketknives changed little in the US. Of course we were aware of incredible blades forged by the craftsmen of Japan, and knew of the fabled swords of the Arabs, but the primary thing available to us was tool steel knives. These knives were inexpensive, and we all carried one in our pockets.

There was a game we played with them that involved throwing them at each others feet in such a way that they would stick into the ground. The rules were set up so that you wanted to throw your knife close to the other guy’s foot, but not actually get his shoe. You begin standing about 2 feet from a sidewalk. You throw knives close to each other’s sidewalk-side shoe. Each then slid his shoe up to the knife. If one pulled his foot up, you examined the shoe print to see if he was chicken or if the other guy made a bad throw. As the game progressed, the shoes steadily move towards the sidewalk and you risked breaking your knife (so throw close to his foot). We were fairly good and what is much more important, lucky.

Tool steel rusts quickly, and as I grew older, it became common to find knives made from stainless steel. These wouldn’t rust, but the cheap ones were never very sharp, and became dull quite quickly. I would guess that these would be perfectly fine for playing mumblety-peg, but I would have wanted a knife that keeps its edge, and the nice stainless steel knives made by Buck were too expensive for me. The Buck knife company was started in 1946 by a man who learned blacksmithing as a boy in 1903.

Knives are now available in many different steels. For me, the most important things are that it be easy to sharpen, and have good edge stability. It seems like I’m always carving up cardboard boxes for shipping things. A favorite manufacturer of mine the last few years is Kershaw, which is based down in Oregon. I like their affordable pocketknives, which use AUS-6A, a stainless steel. The hot new steel is S30V, which is made by powder metallurgy.

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Lost in Space

There is a long naval tradition that captains of military ships spend many years in training and practice before receiving command of a ship. Such an officer becomes intimately familiar with the details of their ship. In particular, they understand the limitations and advantages of their weapons systems to an extreme degree.

I realize that all traditions eventually decay away, but I had not expected this one, a very practical tradition that has served the sea-faring nations well for several thousand years, is not going to last into the next few centuries.

People who had access to televisions back in 2002 learned of the death of this tradition early, as that was when an episode of the television series “Star Trek: Enterprise” was aired. I don’t own a television and so here I am, shocked and daunted by the things I’ve seen, five long years after most people learned them. If my buddy didn’t own a TV, I’d likely never have known.

In this episode, Captain Archer asks that the ships phase cannons be used against the enemy. But phase cannons cannot be fired while this ship is moving at warp speed. He receives his education on this limitation from a junior officer, the way one might expect a captain would learn that the crew’s mess has run low on baking powder for cookies, or that there is a shortage of brooms.

The only parallel I can think of for this level of ignorance is the captains of industry, who even now seem less capable than their counterparts from years ago. I’ve not seen enough to understand the details of how officers are to be trained in the future. It appears that the capabilities of military officers will eventually approach those of chief executive officers of large companies: ceremonial posts required by the human flocking instinct; that their decision making capability will be primiarily limited to such as choosing the paint color in the executive washroom and making bad sports analogies while playing golf.

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