Discover the BlipBlox, a Kids’ Toy and Fully-Functional Synthesizer That Will Teach Toddlers to Play Electronic Music

A series of videos has been going around showing Zakk Wylde, former guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne, playing classic rock and metal songs on diminutive Hello Kitty guitars. They're funny: seeing the burly, bearded legend rock out on a kid's guitar; but they're also pretty impressive, when he wrings real grit and feeling from these unlikely instruments.

I imagine it won’t be long before we’ll see a similar stunt with someone like Moby, for example, ripping out danceable grooves on the Blipblox, a kids' toy that is also a fully-functioning synthesizer (“actually, it’s both”!).




While the Blipblox may look like one of thousands of noisy console-like toddler toys, it’s one that won't tempt parents to do what many parents do (be honest)—pull out the batteries and hide them where they can't ever be found.

Apologies to Hello Kitty guitars, but by comparison with most instruments made for kids, the Blipblox is seriously sophisticated. “What sets this apart from other toys,” writes Mixmag, “is that it uses ‘a proprietary algorithm that synthesizes completely unique waveforms’ allowing users to create their own soundwave. The features include one low pass filter, two envelope generators, eight oscillator modulation schemes, two LFOs and MIDI, plus more.”

If those specs sound like an alien language to you, they won’t make any more sense to your 3-year-old, and they don’t need to. “The blipblox was made to have fun without fully understanding how it works,” says the toy synthesizer’s creator in an introductory video above. Turn it on and start hitting buttons, twisting dials, and pushing the two joystick-like controllers back and forth, and beats, bleeps, bloops, blurps, and other synth-y sounds spill out, at various tempos and pitches.

As kids (or parents who hijack the device) gain more control, they can start refining their technique and create original compositions, as you can see happening in the “studio sessions” video above. Then they can output their sounds to mom and dad’s home studio, or wherever—Blipblox is ready, as its Indiegogo campaign promises, for “a pro studio setup.” Or just lots of entertaining goofing around.

The Blipblox is a brilliant invention and has already won a 2018 award for “Best Teaching Tool for Pre-School Students” and made an appearance at the very grown-up 2018 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) convention—see below. Priced at $159, the Blipblox ships this summer. Sign up at Indiegogo for “early bird perks.”

via Mixmag

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teaching child visitors how to write their names using an unfamiliar or antique alphabet is a favorite activity of museum educators, but Dr. Irving Finkel, a cuneiform expert who specializes in ancient Mesopotamian medicine and magic, has grander designs.

His employer, the British Museum, has over 130,000 tablets spanning Mesopotamia’s Early Dynastic period to the Neo-Babylonian Empire “just waiting for young scholars to come devote themselves to (the) monkish work” of deciphering them.




Writing one’s name might well prove to be a gateway, and Dr. Finkel has a vested interest in lining up some new recruits.

The museum’s Department of the Middle East has an open access policy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and personal with a vast collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extremely personable Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform consists of three components—upright, horizontal and diagonal—made by pressing the edge of a reed stylus, or popsicle stick if you prefer, into a clay tablet.

The mechanical process seems fairly easy to get the hang of, but mastering the oldest writing system in the world will take you around six years of dedicated study. Like Japan’s kanji alphabet, the oldest writing system in the world is syllabic. Properly written out, these syllables join up into a flowing calligraphy that your average, educated Babylonian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rustle up a popsicle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth sticking with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some naturally occurring cuneiform inspired him to write a horror novel, which is now available for purchase, following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Begin your cuneiform studies with Irving Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female characters hits the lecture circuit to set the record straight premieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Mister Rogers Accepts a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Helps You Thank Everyone Who Has Made a Difference in Your Life

Television host and children’s advocate Fred Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, for whom spiritual reflection was as natural and necessary a part of daily life as his vegetarianism and morning swims.

His quiet personal practice could take a turn for the public and interactive, as he demonstrated from the podium at the Daytime Emmy Awards in 1997, above.

Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, he refrained from running through the standard laundry list of thanks. Instead he invited the audience to join him in spending 10 seconds thinking of the people who “have loved us into being.”




He then turned his attention to his wristwatch as hundreds of glamorously attired talk show hosts and soap stars thought of the teachers, relatives, and other influential adults whose tender care, and perhaps rigorous expectations, helped shape them.

(Play along from home at the 2:15 mark.)

Ten seconds may not seem like much, but consider how often we deploy emojis and “likes” in place of sitting with others’ feelings and our own.

Of all the things Fred Rogers was celebrated for, the time he allotted to making others feel heard and appreciated may be the greatest.

Fifteen years after his death, the Internet ensures that he will continue to inspire us to be kinder, try harder, listen better.

That effect should quadruple when Morgan Neville's Mister Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is released next month.

Another sweet Emmy moment comes at the top, when the honoree smooches his wife, Joanne Rogers, before heading off to join presenter Tim Robbins at the podium. Described in Esquire as “hearty and almost whooping in (her) forthrightness,” the stalwart Mrs. Rogers appeared in a handful of episodes, but never played the sort of highly visible role Mrs. Claus inhabited within her husband’s public realm.

The full text of Mister Rogers’ Lifetime Achievement Award award speech is below:

So many people have helped me to come here to this night.  Some of you are here, some are far away and some are even in Heaven.  All of us have special ones who loved us into being.  Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.  10 seconds, I'll watch the time. Whomever you've been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they have made.  You know they're kind of people television does well to offer our world.  Special thanks to my family, my friends, and my co-workers in Public Broadcasting and Family Communications, and to this Academy for encouraging me, allowing me, all these years to be your neighbor.  May God be with you.  Thank you very much.

via Mental Floss

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Mister Rogers, Sesame Street & Jim Henson Introduce Kids to the Synthesizer with the Help of Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby & Bruce Haack

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this Wednesday, May 16, for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Choirs Around the World Simulate the Rainstorm in Toto’s “Africa” Using Only Their Hands

The Los Angeles-based choir, Angel City Chorale, above, captured the Internet’s imagination in a big way with their 2013 cover of Toto’s 1982 hit, "Africa," in which the group’s 160 performers created a realistic-sounding thunderstorm using only their hands.

Delightful! And more common than you may at first think.




The Chorale acknowledges that they owe a great debt to Slovenian vocal group Perpetuum Jazzile’s thunderous 2008 rendition. Stagehands accustomed to creating credible thunderclaps by waving wiggly sheets of aluminum backstage may want to switch to hundreds of feet hopping up and down in unison, as heard at the 1-minute mark, below.

Go a bit further back to find an actual African choir’s finger-snapping, thigh-smacking "Africa."

The Kearsney College Choir is based near Durban, South Africa, and they appear to have been the first to open this number with the now-famous rainstorm effect. Its members are school boys ranging in age from 13 to 18. The video below shows them performing the tune in the 2008 World Choir Games, an annual competition that will be taking place on their home turf this year.

Interestingly, there’s not that much rain in the original. Over the years Toto’s songwriters, David Paich and Jeff Porcaro have made various statements about its origins—a guy transfixed by images of suffering Africans on TV, a lonely missionary, a visit to the 1964 World’s Fair’s Africa pavilion …

There’s a bit of rain to be seen in the very 80’s official music video, but nothing that rivals the choirs’ spectacular downpours.

If you’re moved to whip up a tempest of your own, Jbrary’s children's librarians, Dana Horrocks and Lindsey Krabbenhoft, have created an instructional video that shows just how simple the effect is to master. The real trick is enlisting 100s of friends to do it at the same time.

Buy Perpetuum Jazzile’s "Africa" CD and vocal arrangements here.

Download Angel City Chorale’s "Africa" single on iTunes or CDBaby.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, April 23 for the third installment of her literary-themed variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Shazam for Nature: A New Free App Helps You Identify Plants, Animals & Other Denizens of the Natural World

Do you ever long for those not-so-long-ago days when you skipped through the world, breathless with the anticipation of catching Pokémon on your phone screen?

If so, you might enjoy bagging some of the Pokeverse’s real world counterparts using Seek, iNaturalist’s new photo-identification app. It does for the natural world what Shazam does for music.

Aim your phone’s camera at a nondescript leaf or the grasshopper-ish-looking creature who’s camped on your porch light. With a bit of luck, Seek will pull up the relevant Wikipedia entry to help the two of you get better acquainted.




Registered users can pin their finds to their personal collections, provided the app’s recognition technology produces a match.

(Several early adopters suggest it’s still a few houseplants shy of true functionality…)

Seek’s protective stance with regard to privacy settings is well suited to junior specimen collectors, as are the virtual badges with which it rewards energetic uploaders.

While it doesn’t hang onto user data, Seek is building a photo library, composed in part of user submissions.

(Your cat is ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille…)

(Ditto your Portobello Mushroom burger…)

Download Seek for free on iTunes or Google Play.

via Earther/My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The History of the U.S. Civil War Visualized Month by Month and State by State, in an Infographic from 1897

There’s been a lot of handwringing over the i-Generation’s lack of map reading skills.

While we’re at it, let’s take a cold, hard look at the Gilded Age infographic, above....

... and conclude that people who live in glass houses should stop reaching for stones.

Published in 1897 by the Comparative Synoptical Chart Company, this now unfathomable document--History of the Civil War in the United States: 1860-1865--achieved its goal of squeezing the maximum amount of content onto a single sheet.

This is in direct opposition to today’s generally accepted rules for creating successful infographics, one of which is to simplify.




Another holds that text should be used sparingly, lest it clutter up strong visuals. Consumers have a limited attention span, and for content to be considered shareable, they should be able to take it in at a glance.

Modern eyes may be forgiven for mistaking this chart for the world’s most convoluted subway map. But those aren’t stops, friend. They’re minor engagements. Bloodier and better-known battles are delineated with larger circles—yellow centers for a Union victory, pale green for Confederate.

The fastest way to begin making heads or tails of the chart is to note that each column is assigned to a different state.

The vertical axis is divided into months. Notice all the negative space around Fort Sumter.

And the constant entries in Virginia's column.

The publisher noted that the location of events was “entirely governed” by this time scale.

You’ll have to look hard for Lincoln’s assassination.

Consumers who purchased the History of the Civil War in the United States 1860-1865 presumably pored over it by candlelight, supplementing it with maps and books.

It would still make a superb addition to any history teacher’s classroom, both as decoration and the tinder that could ignite discussion as to how we receive information, and how much information is in fact received.

Explore a larger, zoomable version of the map here.

via Slate

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Mister Rogers, Sesame Street & Jim Henson Introduce Kids to the Synthesizer with the Help of Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby & Bruce Haack

Does your child have a musical instrument? That’s good. Taken a few music lessons? Even better. If they’re so inclined, learning music is one of the best things kids can do for their developing brains, whether or not they make a career of the endeavor. But one doesn’t need classical training or jazz chops to make music, or even to become a musician. Those skills have served many an electronic musician, sure, but many others have created moving, complex music with ingenuity, finely-tuned ears, tech smarts, and wildly experimental attitudes.

Then there are electronic artists, like Bruce Haack, Herbie Hancock, and Thomas Dolby, who combined fine musicianship with all of the above qualities and made people stop and wonder, people who were not necessarily fans of electronic music, and who didn't know very much about it.




None of these artists felt it beneath them to bring their art further down to earth, to the level of the kids who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street. On the contrary, they're natural educators, with a performer’s instinct for timing and audience and a geek’s instinct for highlighting the coolest technical bits. But leave it to Mister Rogers himself, above, to celebrate the music and the playfulness of synthesized sound in his mild-mannered Cole Porter-ish way, to the accompaniment of a good-old fashioned piano and one of his mother’s signature handknit sweaters, in green.

Above, we have the weird wonky Haack, a musical prodigy who studied at Juilliard, and who loved nothing more than making children’s records with his partner, children’s dancer Esther Nelson, and creating musical instruments from household objects and handwired circuitry that was activated by human touch. Fred Rogers was so taken with Haack’s playfulness that he had the composer and Nelson on a long segment of his show. You may or may not know that Haack’s work was inspired by peyote and that he recorded a rock opera called The Electric Lucifer about a war between heaven and hell, but you’ll probably sense there’s more to him than meets the eye. Rogers and the kids are mesmerized (see Part 2 of the segment here.)

Herbie Hancock’s appearance on Sesame Street operates much more on a get to know you level than the gestalt dance therapy performance art of Haack and Nelson. He jams out; charms future Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Tatyana Ali by turning her name into high-pitched chorus of voices; and explains the many functions of his Fairlight CMI, a digital synthesizer born in the same year as the young actress. The technology isn’t nearly as interesting as Haack’s homemade curios, given that every one of the Fairlight functions can be fit into an app these days. The joy lies in watching the kids warm to Hancock and the then-new technology.

When it comes to Thomas Dolby’s appearance on the Jim Henson Company’s The Ghost of Faffner Hall program, we are in the position of the child audience. Dolby, with his peculiar English intensity, plays a mad scientist character who stares into the camera as he demonstrates his collection of synthesizers, analog and digital, for viewers. Dolby’s performance might have been aided by some real kids to play off of, but his “fly in a matchbox” example will easily help you and your young ones understand the basic principles at work in synthesizing sound. These playful tutorials were made for kids in 1968, 83, and 89 respectively, and maybe they can still work magic on young 21st century minds. But, as Fred Rogers says, “grownups like to play too, sure. And if you look and listen carefully through this world, you’ll find lots of things that are playful.” Few grownups have been better authorities on the subject.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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