Print Story The Short Attention-Spanned Clavier
By Scrymarch (Sat Nov 14, 2009 at 04:37:48 AM EST) (all tags)
Toys. New Yorker. Flux.


Toy history is the history of generational struggle.

I've alluded before, in this intermittent series of reviews, to the tensions placed on a toy by its different stakeholder groups. These groups are defined most of all by age and family relations, from the child that plays with the toy, through the parent who may buy it, play with it, endure it, or otherwise place on it the burdens of the nanny or teacher, through to grandparents and other allomothers who gift it. A toy favouring one group too heavily will not long endure. For instance, a horn which produces a single ear shattering note may be delightful to the child, but is likely to be crushed under a merciless heel of the ruling parental class. Contrariwise, an educational video tailored more to the aspiration of the parent than the interest of the child will find itself the subject of a general strike. By such mechanisms the household economy finds a kind of dynamic equilibrium based on fluctuating control of the means of toy production.

Indeed, within the industrialised world where the products of the consumer economy are abundant, toys included, generational relations within the toy economy have social parallels with the nineteenth century. Consider, for instance, the periodic (but not routine) alliances of bourgeois grandparental class with the child proletariat against the parental petit-bourgeois.

Which is all a way of saying: Lego is really cool. And so is the VTech Sing and Discover Piano.

The Sing and Discover Piano really owes more to the electronic synthesiser and mix desk tradition than the percussive nineteenth century instrument that bears its name. The keyboard is just a few keys too short for more than a few of the opening bars to Beethoven's Ode To Joy. What it does boast is a reasonably wide and eclectic set of samples across a range of musical styles, instrumental sounds and animal noises. VTech are not limited by the usual set of children's songs, and also include eg classical and bluegrass pieces, giving young monsters an opportunity to play along to a Mozart symphony with the sounds of screeching monkeys and miaowing cats. A toy dog familiar to VTech afficionadaos sits atop, playing plastic air guitar in a showy but amiable manner, and easily within the conventional parameters of lead guitarist arrogance.

Those used to the generosity of digital music players may be disappointed that the range of songs is not hundreds rather than the dozen or so found here. As neither your humble correspondent nor his unpaid child labouring intern is yet to obtain a review copy of a kiddie iPhone, it was not something we missed.

We've rented the toy twice in recent months and it held the attention pretty well, even in the face of a rental toystravaganza whilst moving house and other alternatives were packed away. It also survived the emptying of a full glass of water into its electronic innards after simply opening it up and letting the circuitry dry for a day or two.

By bringing the thesis of child play together with the antithesis of parental teaching, these toys allow synthesis into a new stage of toy society, albeit one embedded within the broader context of late industrial consumer capitalism. It lends a certain poignant weight to that beloved toymaker's expression, "A game the whole family can enjoy".

It's worth noting in passing that Minimarch's Lego is not the authentic Danish crafted version but a high quality rip off branded Bricks. Given the uses of blocks to build model bridges, dogs and so on, it is therefore a simulation (copy) of a simulacra (Lego). Minimarch is too young to be trusted with the small pieces of Lego proper, so these blocks are rather based on the Duplo subgenre. The blocks are inherited from a cousin or friend of the family, and one or two genuine Duplo blocks have crept into the set. These are subtly incompatible with the Bricks, and hairline cracks have been appearing. These cracks may, however, also be caused by the enthusiastic casting to the ground Minimarch applies to many household items.

The technique for such activities is to lift the item, two handed, to about forehead height, then, after a dramatic pause, propel it groundward. The expression on such occasions is joy at the confirmation of the anticipated outcome; much, one imagines, like Galileo Galilei had on his outing to the Tower of Pisa.

Rekroy Wen

I don't often read the New Yorker - extortionate overseas prices are a factor - but I happened to read last week's, which was very good. The piece on the Victorian bushfires hit home to me in a way the Australian coverage had not. Having to read it from another country's upper middlebrow journalists may be a character flaw. It seemed precise and sad, and not overwrought.

The standout in the magazine though was the Letter From Lishui, a long, gentle essay on fragments of life and fragmented views of the West in a smallish industrial Chinese town. He describes how it's not a town big enough to have major multinationals working there, instead they have an arbitrary collection of outsourced components, meaning the view of overseas may be fragmentary but those fragments are extremely precise ... the company which spelt its English title backwards on the factory sign, as in the formal style of traditional Chinese characters, also appealed to me.

It is easy in an essay like this to apply the mesh of a particular social or economic theory, but Hessler has a familiarity with and affection for his subject that lets him skirt these; letting the reader find their own way. He also avoids the mixture of condescension and fear which sometimes seems to be the default in English language reportage on China.

The articles are both stuck behind paywalls now, but there is an audio visual from the author, too short to do it justice.


Flux has pushed us away from Disneyland and back to godzone for a while. Backyard is nice. House is a bomb site. Good to be back, mixed with twinges of elsewhere.

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The Short Attention-Spanned Clavier | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Thanks by johnny (4.00 / 1) #1 Mon Nov 16, 2009 at 01:16:07 PM EST
My wife once owned a children's book and toy store & I put all kinds of unpaid hours working there.

One of the highlights was going to the Toy Fair in New York City every year -- serious business, no children allowed-- and going to the Toy Buildings on Herald Square where toy manufacturers had showrooms -- which in many instances were open only  two weeks each year -- before during and after the toy fair.

She has effectively checked out. She's an un-person of her own making. So it falls to me.--ad hoc (in the hole)

That sounds pretty cool by Scrymarch (2.00 / 0) #2 Tue Nov 17, 2009 at 12:17:25 AM EST
Designing toys must honestly be a tough job though.

I guess your wife's toy store would have been of the charming small corner variety?

Will sig for food

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It was more charming by johnny (4.00 / 1) #3 Tue Nov 17, 2009 at 07:16:05 AM EST
than my words can describe, and it indeed was on a corner. I'll put up some photos some day.

Too bad the whole country, especially the small "city" in which we then resided, went into a steep recession just about the day she opened the doors for business. That recession closed for good a few local furniture-making factories that had been in operation for more than a century, and half the storefronts on Main Street were empty before she finally threw in the towel, taking our life savings with it. That was in 1993, and we've never recovered financially. 

But damn, it was a beautiful thing while it lasted, and a great fun way to go broke.

She has effectively checked out. She's an un-person of her own making. So it falls to me.--ad hoc (in the hole)

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