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Last weekend, my four-year-old son, James, spent the morning running around the house collecting spare change. When he'd turned over every sofa cushion and scoured the dusty underside of all the beds, he sat on the kitchen floor painstakingly counting the contents of his pockets.

"Is this five pounds and 60 pence?" He asked me urgently. "I need five pounds and 60 pence." (About $9 Canadian.)

Windfall confirmed, he dragged me out the door to "the shop near the bus stop," where there was a toy he desperately wanted to buy. Normally, I'm pretty stingy about indulging his desires (as with most kids, he measures out his days in Kinder eggs, Vaseline-flavoured soft-serve ice cream and any cheap toy sold in those maddening coin-operated dispensers), but in this case his determination was so urgent, his market research so complete, I decided to roll with it.

He led me to the shop and went in alone, pockets jingling with anticipation, while I waited outside with the baby. When James emerged, he was carrying a small box that contained a curious three-pronged red plastic widget with little round metal weights on each end. He pinched the middle bit and spun the toy between his thumb and forefinger, staring at it in a sort of hypnotic trance.

"What does it do?" I said.

"Nothing!" he said, beaming wildly. "Isn't it cool?"

Those of you with school-age children will already have recognized the source of my son's delight as a fidget spinner – the latest, weirdest and most decidedly analog craze to rip through playgrounds around the world. And if you've not yet heard of fidget spinners, allow me to divest you of your ignorance.

Suddenly and for no apparent reason, fidget spinners are everywhere. In most big cities today, they are like rats: You might not notice them, but chances are you are never more than three feet from one at any given time.

Where did these little gizmos come from and why now? In the past few weeks, as the craze swept the hearts and minds of kids around the globe, baffled parents have begun to ask why. It turns out fidget spinners are as insidious as their origins are mysterious.

While some media outlets (including The Guardian and The New York Times) reported that the toy had originally been invented by an Orlando engineer and tinkerer by the name of Catherine Hettinger in the nineties, other sources insisted the gadget was a fiddling toy to help children with autism or ADHD let off steam while trying to focus in school. There were other reports: that it had been conceived of in Israel to stop Palestinian children throwing rocks at tanks and also that it was a brainchild of an exhausted stay-home mother.

Much of this confusion centred on Hettinger herself, who happily gave interviews implying she'd conceived of the toy when, according to a recent investigation by Bloomberg news, she didn't. After two intellectual-property experts read Hettinger's original patent, they concluded her toy was distinct from the one driving children mad on the playground today. As to the real inventor? "It's not clear which patents, if any, would cover the current fidget spinners. If the toys have a true inventor, he or she remains in obscurity," Bloomberg's Joshua Brustein wrote.

What's certain is that someone, somewhere (or more likely many people in many different places) is getting very rich very quickly as a result of the fidget-spinner craze. The toy's popularity began to rise last month, with Google searches for "fidget spinners" spiking drastically for no apparent reason. By the first week of May, it was reported by various outlets that fidget spinners occupied the top spot on 17 of Amazon's national bestseller lists for toys around the world.

It's astonishing how accelerated the playground trend cycle has become: Within just a couple of weeks, the backlash had begun. While hula hoops stuck around for most of the sixties and Rubik's Cubes dominated the first half of the eighties, fidget spinners penetrated and saturated the market so completely they were over almost before they began.

Legions of parents were griping on social media, and in the pages of various newspapers, "experts" debunked the supposed stress relieving curative effects of the suddenly-ubiquitous gadget. The dubious "science" behind them was decried as false, and by the middle of May, fidget spinners were banned in many schools on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, last Monday morning, when I suggested James take his fidget spinner to school for show-and-tell, he looked at me as if I was the saddest person on Earth. "Why would my friends want to see my one when they all have their own?" he asked, looking crestfallen.

Well exactly, little man. And that is the problem with crazes.