Yo-yo, yo

A couple months ago my wife’s godson (and that makes us…?) was over and showed me his new yo-yo. Seeking the approval of the 8 year old I dug out my yo-yo, a Duncan Butterfly from the 1980s, and showed him Rock the Baby.

But I also had a Yomega Brain in there- a yo-yo that has a clutch transaxle, which makes the yo-yo automatically spin at the bottom of a throw, and also automatically come back. Which is cool if all you want to do is throw and sleep, but not great for doing much else. I got it when it came out in the late 80’s or early 90’s, when even Sharper Image was selling this “high tech” yo-yo for like $30.

That night, inspired, I looked online for yo-yo materials… The basic Duncan Imperial or the Duncan Butterfly are still plastic and cost around $3; the Yomega brain is now closer to $12. But in the last fifteen years or so I wasn’t playing with yo-yos the technology completely changed.

Actually in 1993 my roommate in college had a “laser balanced” yo-yo which cost him over $80. It was wood, and in retrospect was a transaxle; he was terrible at it. I think he was one of those people who’d buy the best of the best of the best and then never practice (he was from Orinda). I thought the whole thing was retarded.

So I took a weekend and learned all there was to learn about the yo-yo without actually touching one. I learned that the transaxle, a ball-bearing or other device at the center of the yo-yo, had taken off in the last fifteen years. New shapes of yo-yo bodies had made string tricks easier, and special pads were now in yo-yo centers to bring the yo-yo back out of a spin. A whole nomenclature had arisen to describe yo-yo types and string categories.

Armed with this knowledge I went to Games of Berkeley and grabbed two yo-yo’s, the Duncan Bumblebee and the Duncan ThrowMonkey. I have always wanted Duncan yo-yos, since my childhood, because they are the “originals;” I saw them on TV and thought they were cool. When I actually got one, my red Butterfly (almost indistinguishable from the original model released in the 1960s!), I realized this yo-yo thing was hard. I was able to do Around the World, Walk the Dog, and Rock the Baby but that was about it.

I feel that, as with so many things, this is my chance to use my increased focus and attention span to swing around and do something right this time. To this end, I completely re-wrote the Yo-yo article in Wikipedia to be its present vast size.

I really like the BumbleBee; it has a ball-bearing on the inside and a cork response system. It turns out that Duncan recently acquired the manufacturer and so my timing was good on this one. I learned a bunch of the basic tricks and started watching trick videos online.

At this point I started wondering about the technique of the tricks, and found an awesome resource: The Yonomicon, by Mark McBride. It enumerates literally every possible yo-yo and string position, and has a map interrelating all of them for freestyle usage. Around this time I got a new yo-yo, the SuperYo Renegade, which had been the big thing a few years ago when it was on Jay Leno.

Sometimes you for sure need a better yo-yo. It’s not cheating; the yo-yo is designed for certain tricks. Without the transaxle, for example, most modern string tricks would simply not be possible.

However, I didn’t want to turn into my roommate from college. So I swore to not buy a new yo-yo until I had outgrown the current one; that is, only buy a new yo-yo when it became impossible to master new a new level of trick without it. So I’m still using the “‘gade” as my main yo-yo.

Diane and I were in London in August for a wedding, and visited a toy store, Hamley’s. That place was big; it’s an entire department store for just toys. Call me a toy snob but I prefer Hakuhinkan Toy Park… Even farther away!

Anyway, while we were at Hamley’s we saw this guy demonstrating a yo-yo. This was Julius from YoYoFactory, and he was showing off the SpeedDial to little kids, which is sort of overkill– this yo-yo has a tunable response system and costs $50. When he had a spare moment (no kids around) I chatted him up.

Julius was cool; he is from Arizona and was “on tour” promoting the yo-yo. He had a FlyMaster, which is an enormous big floppy yo-yo, with a string that was waaaaaay too long, like 20 feet. “What is this for?” I ask. Julius looks at me conspiratorially, and makes sure no one is in the aisle. He then throws this thing along the length of the entire store, and brings it back; it was like a Bond villain or something. Then, since no one was around, he showed me some of his personal stash, including the “eight8eight,” which is a responseless yo-yo. I would love one of these.

Months later, at some point I went to the 2007 California State Yo-yo Championship at the Exploratorium. My objective was to learn some tricks in person, and boy did I!

One of the fun episodes was at the snack bar where all the Yo-yo athetes were waiting for their turn to compete, including some guys from YoYoFactory. They were so awesome, they had this travelling case for all their yo-yos, lined with foam and with a transparent front so you could see the yo-yos stored in the lid. I met Augie Fash (MySpace page here), who I later find out is sort of a celebrity.

BRAIN: Do you know Julius?
AUGIE: Oh yeah, Julius from Arizona? How do you know Julius?
BRAIN: Oh, we met in London…

Ho ho. Augie was very cool; even though he was about to perform he showed me a few tricks and how I was screwing up on something I was having trouble with.

After the YoYoFactory guys I hung out with some of the old-school yo-yo guys, who were going pretty unnoticed. These guys were all like ten or even twenty years older than the current competitors, and the stuff they kenw was insane. Mark McBride was there, and I got him to autograph my copy of The Yonomicon, which he thought was pretty suspicious but he did it anyway. I asked some of these guys about tricks that were no longer popular, weird ones that are like Lariat/UFO and saw some crazy kung-fu things.

Last but not least on that trip was Captain Yo. Youngsters don’t seem to know who he is, but he and Tom Kuhn are the inventors of the transaxle. Captain Yo told me about how they came up with certain designs and the engineering issues they had to face when creating the first transaxles and response systems. He has got to be in his 70s and was selling his way too complicated set of books on the physics of yo-yos. I don’t think he sold many copies, but let’s put it this way– if you wanted to design, from the ground up, your own ultimate yo-yo, and you have a background in physics, engineering, and materials science, you need these books. Without a basic grounding in physics, the books are basically just a list of formulas and arcane diagrams.

When he found out I am an engineer he went on this hour-long lecture and made me remember stuff about mechanics I hadn’t used in over ten years. I bought Captain Yo’s books; I have an idea for an indestructible yo-yo which will spin for several years and can be used as a weapon like that guy’s thumbnail in Johnny Mnemonic. All I need is the special gloves I’ll need for the string so it doesn’t cut off my fingers.

  • If you are still “starting out” like me, check out Begin2Spin. They have trick videos of a bunch of the standard tricks. The only bad part: some of the closeups are not very helpful; I had to watch someone do Split the Atom a number of times in person to figure it out.
  • Recommended by Augie, MasterMagic
  • Also recommended, Sector Y (go down to “Tricks”)

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