Archive for July, 2017

In attempting to explain the world to my two and a half year-old son, I have come to realise that human artifacts are divided into two very simple categories: “Tools” and “Toys.” It all seems rather obvious when you consider that things are either designed to enable one to complete a task, or simply to be played with for the sake of pleasure. These categories are by no means exclusive and, if one were to create a Venn diagram representing human artifacts, there would be a great number of items which shared the space where the circles overlapped; at least with regard to how they are employed.

The Oxford English dictionary defines a tool as “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.” This seems a pretty sound definition, although we shouldn’t be too swayed by the use of “especially” into thinking that things not held in the hand are not actually tools. After all, considering this more broadly, we might categorise a table or chair as a tool, in that they allow one to carry out a particular function – whether it be sitting and eating dinner or standing upon either of them to change a light-bulb. Approaching the problem from this perspective brings almost anything that is useful under the same very large golfing umbrella. A car is a tool for carrying things, including oneself, between places; a book is a tool for conveying information; a towel is a tool for drying oneself, and so on. If it isn’t designed purely for pleasure and serves a functional purpose, then surely we might consider it to be a tool.

Toys, on the other hand, are defined as “an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.” While the definition of a toy as something to play with seems right enough, I strongly dispute the rather limiting idea that they are merely for children. Irrespective of this, a toy ought to have no functional purpose beyond pleasure and play. A toy car, for example, isn’t much use for anything beyond the recreational, although I’m certain it could be used in a more functional manner under the right circumstances. Equally, one might say that a teddy bear cannot be classified as a tool, unless we wish to be very open-minded in our consideration of all possible situations and imagine that it might serve as a pillow, insulation, or, under extreme circumstances, a weapon. We might also define a teddy bear as a tool for helping get a child to sleep, but this does seem rather to push the reasonable boundaries of the definition. Either way, if we apply these broad definitions to such artifacts, then one can see that pretty well all objects are either tools or toys.

Of course it is possible to play with almost anything at all, whatever its original purpose, which is precisely why I have come to this realisation in the first place. My son far prefers to play with things that aren’t toys most of the time; screwdrivers, knives, kitchen sprays, drills, lighters, scissors, shampoo bottles and the like. Of course, it is the dangerous things that are most attractive to him, largely because they are interesting objects, but mostly, I suspect, because we constantly tell him that he shouldn’t be playing with these things and frequently confiscate them from his hot little hands. I have now become so boring about this whole business that he even repeats the mantra of “it’s not a toy, it’s a tool”, without in any way changing his behaviour. Yet, in being forced to define things in this way, the world has become quite sharply divided, not so much into things which are tools or toys, but into things which ought to be played with and which ought not to be played with. The degree of subjectivity one might bring to this is mindboggling, and I do harbour more than a little reluctance in suggesting, for example, that one can’t have a good time with a hammer. For my son’s sake however, perhaps I should be pleased that while he is successfully learning the categorical boundaries, this is not in any way limiting his desire to play with things that are not toys. It’s a tough one; I don’t want to stifle his creativity, but, as the Easter Road Toll song says “Fingers don’t grow back,” and I’d like him to reach adulthood physically intact.


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Ice-cream van, Hong Kong, 19th July, 2009

Whether or not the people who created the “Mister Softee” brand name did so with a sense of irony is anyone’s guess, but there is something intrinsically amusing about the name. It is refreshingly un-masculine, as is the use of the formal, written “mister” in place of the more common contraction, which is bolder, and achieves this through a kind of playful emasculation that may or may not be intended. Ice-cream itself is hardly a very masculine food; decadent rather than stoic, it has connotations of indulgence, relaxation, innocent and guilty pleasure. Perhaps the title is rather alluding to this; its softness as a substance fits the softness of ice-cream as a pastime or treat.

To be soft also suggests lenience, kindness and generosity; so the man who sells the ice-cream is kind, gentle, friendly, and those who indulge in it are perhaps more soft in how they seek happiness; eschewing the savoury and the harder-edged in favour of the syrupy sweet. The soft lighting in this image seems to fit with the gifted title, while the ice-cream man with the hair-band has an air of kindness and dedication in his meditative approach to pouring a cone. He seems to have an affinity with the young customer who stands, watching closely, united through their love of ice-cream.

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