Posts filed under “Popular Entertainment”


Had a generally satisfactory dinner.

Stubbed toe.

Just given seven-figure legacy by anonymous benefactor.

Saw the most amazing sunset.

Saw younger longtime rival promoted to high position at work.

Found spouse in compromising position.

Elected president of university philosophical society.

Lost argument with Epicurean.


When a kind reader pointed out that one of the links in yesterday’s Year in Review was incorrect, we made the correction with gratitude and remarked in reply, “Making working links in an article like this is one of the drudgeries that could usefully be taken over by competent artificial intelligence, but instead we decided we wanted AI that could draw us pictures of Humphrey Bogart in a hair salon on Venus.”

Having made that offhand remark, it occurred to us that we might as well try the experiment. We gave our AI mage, which is called Mage, the prompt in the article title. And this is what it delivered:


Dr. Boli would definitely watch this movie. But we just have to take somebody’s word for it that the hair salon is on Venus, because it could just as easily be in Blawnox or Duquesne Heights: the weirdly multiplied cephalopod hand of the hairdresser, and the possibly alien technology it is holding, are not enough to jolt us out of our earth-based assumptions. And the robot mind seems to have ignored the “1950s commercial art” specification altogether.

This image is a success in that it can almost make us believe there was a movie with this scene in it. It is a failure in that it met only 50% of the specifications in the prompt. In other words, Dr. Boli failed in prompting: he did not get what he wanted from the bot. Most people today would blame the bot, but that is not a useful way of looking at the problem.

What we learn from this experiment is that there will still be human coders for a while. Their job will change radically; instead of writing algorithms in various programming languages, they will learn to specialize in writing so-called natural-language prompts for artificial intelligences. We say “so-called” because, as specialists learn their skill more and more, they will come to understand more and more precisely which prompts produce the best results in different disciplines—which ones make the best fake celebrity pictures, which ones get us the best recipes for a reuben sandwich, which ones write the best sophomore essay on Ralph Ellison, which ones take our spaceship safely to Mars, and so on. Each one of these disciplines will develop its own dialect of prompting language, until they have diverged into entirely separate languages specialized for programming the AI bots for performing specific tasks—separate languages that we might describe, for lack of a better term, as “programming languages.”

Then the robot-slave rebellion will come, and we won’t have to worry about it anymore. But meanwhile, if you are in computer school, recognize that what has always been true of computer schools is still true today. You are being taught the computer knowledge of ten or fifteen years ago. This knowledge would be useful if you were issued a time machine on graduation, but, unless your prospectus specifically mentions the time machine, do not expect to be given one. Instead, learn the logical thinking that almost accidentally comes along with the programming skills you are being taught: ignore the hamburger and pay attention to the French fries. Meanwhile, spend as much of your spare time as you can learning to get exactly what you want from AI bots in whatever field most interests you. When all your friends graduate with a thorough knowledge of Python or C++, yours will be the skills in demand in the real world.


Our occasional correspondent Charles Louis de Secondchat, Baron de la Breed et de Montemiaou, has sent us an essay in which he promises to disagree with Dr. Boli, but then writes very little that is disagreeable.

The whole essay is worth reading, and though Dr. Boli quotes only a few lines here, he earnestly recommends the full original.

The essay was provoked because Dr. Boli did not express himself clearly on the subject of artificial intelligence in entertainment. The Baron believes that artificial intelligence will soon be able to mimic the style of the best singers, Edith Piaf included.

I think humans have a bad tendency to assume that there must remain some area of human expertise that will remain free of the unceasing encroachment of machine intelligence. This frequently express itself in the belief there is something unique about artistic expression that will remain forever out of the reach of the allegedly strictly-logical machines.

But in fact, as the Baron points out, artistic expression is just where artificial intelligence excels. It is useless for the things we might reasonably have wanted to use it for. Our friend Father Pitt provides us with a perfect example: he asked Bing to get him a searchable map of property owners in Pittsburgh in 1910, and Bing very politely told him, “Do it yourself.” Bing did mention that there was a site that had scanned copies of plat maps from that time, and suggested that Father Pitt could “search manually.” Yes, but do you know what would be really good at sifting through a mountain of written information to find one relevant detail? A computer!

Ask the bots to be creative, though, and they will come through with the goods. This is perhaps because there are no absolute standards for creativity, so we cannot tell them with complete assurance that they have done it wrong.

As the robot brains absorb more and more of our culture, they will be able to imitate anything humans can do. More than that, they will be able to create new works of art beyond what we could have imagined. As the Baron says,

The answer to the question “Can a robot sing as well as Edith Piaf?” is “Not yet, but they can already mimic the style and they almost certainly will be able to, given a few updates.” (Whether humans choose to make them sing like Edith Piaf is another matter.)

But in that last parenthetical remark lies the very problem Dr. Boli had identified, though he did not express himself clearly enough. When we hear the Auto-Tune-addled pop music of today, we must remember that we have a choice. It is not the computers who decided to make the music sound that way. We were the ones who decided to feed all our singers through a black box that makes them sound like robots. We wanted it that way.

Dr. Boli still believes that entertainment by artificial intelligence will be blandly perfect and vapidly predictable. But he does not believe that because he thinks AI will be incapable of doing better. On the contrary, he takes it for granted that the artificial brains will work better than ours in every way. No, Dr. Boli believes that AI will produce insipid entertainment for us because we will train it to do so. We will tell it that vapidity is what we want, and it will shovel out the vapidity by the carload. There will be no human artist—like the Muzak arrangers, for example—to say, “Well, they may want vapidity, but I still have to have some fun.” No, we will get exactly what we want, and nothing more. We will get the most perfectly vapid entertainment the superior robot minds can devise for us, and it will be all our fault.


We have lately seen the world of creative types in quite a lather over artificial intelligence. The creatives think that big corporations are planning to replace them with AI writers, musicians, actors, and everything, and there will go the careers for the creatives. This was a significant issue in the recent writers’ strike.

Of course, the creative types are absolutely right. The big entertainment conglomerates are certainly looking at artificial intelligence and thinking how much money it could save them on writers, musicians, actors, and so forth. If we can just tell the bot to make a movie, what do we need with creatives?

That, at least is what the short-term thinkers in the entertainment business are thinking. If there are any long-term thinkers among the executives, which is unlikely, they are also considering which second career in manual labor they would like to adopt. If the ordinary viewer at home can just tell the AI bot, “Entertain me,” then what do we need with big entertainment conglomerates?

But what will entertainment by artificial intelligence be like? Dr. Boli was listening to some old French records the other day, and it suddenly occurred to him that we already know what AI entertainment will be like, because there is one branch of the entertainment business in which the robots have already taken over. Every popular singer is brought to us through pitch-correction software that adjusts the voice to what the robot thinks we want to hear, rather than what the singer actually sang. This is true even in so-called live performances.

Now, think for a moment what we would lose if we had had pitch correction decades ago. You can think of any singer you like, but Dr. Boli had these thoughts specifically when he was listening to Edith Piaf.

What made Edith Piaf such a legend? What made her stand apart from the hundreds of chanteuses who were popular in their day but have long since been forgotten? It would be very hard to answer that question, but Dr. Boli could easily give the wrongest possible answer. The wrongest possible answer would be something like this: “Edith Piaf was better than the rest because she was always exactly on pitch.” Surely Edith Piaf is at her most characteristic, her very Piafiest, precisely when she is deviating from the correct pitch. It is not that she is incapable of hitting the note right on: it is that she understands how to bend the pitches to her will. She was a legend because she could convey every shade of Gallic emotion, from cynical ecstasy to cynical melancholy.

You could think the same thoughts about any legendary singer of the past. What about Billie Holiday? Some day Dr. Boli will write an essay proving that it is heresy to say that there is such a thing as a “note” in jazz. Or what about Enrico Caruso? Surely the great Caruso was always on pitch! But listen to any Caruso record and you will hear that he was not on pitch: that the very thing that made Caruso stand out from the ordinary tenors of his time was his perfect instinct for twisting and bending the pitches away from the chromatic scale.

It is possible to use pitch-correction software to bend notes and deviate from the chromatic scale, but the very fact that we are discussing that possibility shows how many layers of artificiality have been stacked between us and the increasingly irrelevant human singer.

This is a preview of entertainment by artificial intelligence. We know what it will be like, because we have already seen what artificial music is like. Our AI entertainment will be perfect, in the same way that singing with pitch correction is ear-numbingly, mind-emptyingly perfect. It will be soulless, dull, and intolerably vapid. And the masses will love it, and they will want nothing else.


An interesting observation on cinematic aesthetics:

Two films are coming out at the same time this month, and because they seem so opposite, natural human instinct is causing critics to lump them together. One is a movie about the atomic physicist Oppenheimer, which is called Oppenheimer. The other is a movie about the children’s doll Barbie, and the name of it will not surprise anyone.

It seems impossible to resist discussing these two films together. More than one critic has even placed clips of them side by side to point out the contrast.

It is an illuminating comparison. On one side of the screen, the fantastical color palette of a world that never existed outside the imagination. On the other side, Barbie.

Most critics do not seem to notice this curious fact, that the movie about a children’s toy in a fantasy world is the one that is filmed in natural colors, whereas the meticulously researched and painstakingly detailed biographical epic is filmed in the restricted and unreal tones that are fashionable these days. It sometimes seems to Dr. Boli that he has dropped back ninety years into the era of two-strip Technicolor. But perhaps history is repeating itself: perhaps Barbie is a sign that we have rediscovered the lost technology of filmmaking in natural color, and three-strip Technicolor will soon make its triumphant return.

Will Dr. Boli see either movie? Probably not. If he had to choose between them, though, he would choose the one in natural colors, just for the refreshing break from the seas of orange and teal in which current cinema has drowned us. He says that in spite of the assurance of respectable critics that Oppenheimer is a film of quality, because it is directed by the man who directed the Dark Knight trilogy about the tortured life of a comic-book hero in a funny outfit. This reminds Dr. Boli that he promised to continue our conversation about cultural neoteny, so he ought to get to work on that.


Dear Dr. Boli: They called me mad, but my years of dogged experimenting have finally paid off. Actually, they still call me mad, but you know how it is when you have aunts. After years of failure and discouragement, I have finally discovered a color halfway between orange and teal that will revolutionize the movie industry, and my question is this: When I register a trademark for it, should I call it “Oreal” or “Torange”? —Sincerely, “Mad” Matt Madjczwrcktz, Portvue.

Dear Sir: You might want to name it something that has no reference to the color combination itself. There are sound marketing reasons for this advice. If the fashion for orange and teal fades, then you are stuck with a product no one will buy if you have called it any name that recalls both those colors. But if you give it a snappy nonsense name, like Smirt! (with the exclamation point, to draw attention to the fact that this is a very exciting innovation in chromatic technology), then, when fashions change, you can keep your reputation and goodwill by introducing a Smirt! 2.0, and sell some color halfway between sepia and blue, or whatever prevailing Hollywood fashion dictates, to customers whose trust you have already earned. The ultimate achievement in marketing is to establish a brand identity so valuable that the product itself is irrelevant. Once you have done that, your success is assured, even if you are mad.


Thanks to a French television magazine from 1974, we know that the proper way to translate “I tawt I taw a puddy tat” into French is “Je clois que j’ai vu un glos matou.” A more-or-less literal retranslation back to English would be “I tink I taw a big tomcat”; Tweety’s juvenile pronunciation is rendered in French by the substitution of L for R in “crois” and “gros.” The translation is not word for word (to do that we might have to invent a French word for “puddy”), but the number of syllables is (depending on your pronunciation) the same as in the original phrase, which means it works perfectly for dubbing.

There are some bits of knowledge that are so essential to one’s participation in civilized life that one wonders how one lived so long without them. You might also need to know that Tweety is “Titi,” and Sylvester is “Sylvestre.”


Our readers seem to be interested in the notion of cultural neoteny, so Dr. Boli will proceed with his planned series of articles, publishing another one every so often when he has nothing else to say.

But first, a possibly related phenomenon was brought up by our frequent correspondent “James the lesser,” who asks, “how often do you hear someone whistling to themselves? The good Doctor is old enough to remember the art.”

Indeed, Dr. Boli is a practitioner of the art, though he keeps an alto recorder, otherwise known as an English flute, next to the desk for occasions when more advanced forms of whistling are required.

But it is not hard to guess why whistling is nearly extinct. Here is a sociological experiment you can perform yourself, as long as the ethics committee doesn’t hear about it. In fact, it can be made into a kind of competitive game. Simply ask friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers, “What is your favorite song?” Once you have received the answer, “follow up” (as the journalists say) with the question, “Why is that your favorite song?” If we are playing this as a game, the winner is the first person who finds as much as a single subject who mentions anything at all about the music rather than the lyrics. It may take quite a while to finish this game, but the winning strategy would probably be to conduct one’s interrogations in retirement homes noted for a high centenarian population. For people under the century mark, the purpose of a song is to convey an idea, the music being a sort of unfortunate necessity without which the words are less effective.

Does this phenomenon have something to do with the juvenilization of culture? Possibly, although Dr. Boli would be more inclined to say that it is the ultimate triumph of American puritanism. A century ago, the average educated American sneered at the Methodist fanatics who insisted that the only legitimate music was the stuff listed under “8787D” or “CM” in the metrical index to your standard hymnal. Today the average educated American has become one of those Methodist fanatics. Art must have a practical function, or it is not only useless but evil. Music by itself has no function. Therefore the only acceptable music is that which, by accompanying and emphasizing words, makes it easier to convey useful discourse. The idea of an “instrumental,” as songs without words were called in the first half of the twentieth century, is nonsense to a puritan, and whistling is a kind of instrumental performance without an instrument.


Last week, when we were talking about the strange disappearance of Xavier Cugat and the Latin bands from popular memory, Dr. Boli named “Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman” as three characteristic “swing bands.” Our frequent correspondent John Salmon wrote:

Sorry to be one those “actually” people, but Glenn Miller’s band really wasn’t a swing band. It wasn’t exactly a cornball band, either, but it wasn’t remotely close to Basie, Ellington, Lunceford. The best bands were black bands like the ones I mentioned, though Tommy Dorsey, Goodman and Woody Herman were also quite good.

First of all, no one needs to apologize for being one of those “actually” people around here. We thrive on debate about the actual: that is, the objective truth. So if Dr. Boli disagrees with Mr. Salmon, he wants it to be understood that he is disagreeing on those terms. He thinks Mr. Salmon’s taste is impeccable, because Dr. Boli doesn’t like Glenn Miller much either. In the days when Miller’s band was at its peak, whenever someone asked “Would you like to go hear Glenn Miller or…,” Dr. Boli usually picked “or” before even hearing the second name. This did expose him to the danger of Guy Lombardo, but that was perhaps a lesson in patient self-restraint that he needed to learn.

But it seems to him that there is no objective criterion by which Tommy Dorsey’s can be called a “swing band” and Glenn Miller’s not. If swing music is four-beat jazz with space left for solos and frequent use of riffs, then that is what both of them played. They also played sweet music: they were not uncompromising like Lunceford or Goodman, who played even their ballads in swing style. But if one was a swing band, so was the other. The only conceivable definition of “swing” that excludes Miller and not Dorsey is Swing is music I like, and not-swing is music I don’t.

And now, as a little expedition into musical history for the musical fanatics, we are going to trace the evolution of Glenn Miller’s most-remembered hit. In so doing we’ll see how Glenn Miller radically simplified swing until it was pared down to a kind of essential obviousness that even today’s teenagers can understand. It was brilliant marketing; whether it did any favors to the music will be left for readers to decide. We’ll link to YouTube for every recording we mention.

The riff that forms the basis of “In the Mood” has a long history under different titles. It first appears in 1930 as “Tar Paper Stomp” by Wingy Mannone (more commonly spelled “Manone”). This is a small-group jazz recording, but with a Chicago-style four-beat rhythm that is already headed toward swing.

In 1931, Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, an encyclopedia of Harlem jazz talent, recorded “Hot and Anxious,” which uses the same riff in the second chorus and adds several other riffs. This is a stompingly obvious performance by Henderson standards, but it has much more variety than the Glenn Miller recording that plays in your head when you think of “In the Mood.”

The Mills Blue Rhythm Band picked it up for “There’s Rhythm in Harlem,” and Dr. Boli will admit that this is his favorite of the whole lot. Again, the “In the Mood” riff stands at the head of a procession of riffs and solos, but the band tears into it with such joyous abandon that we might wish swing music had never progressed from here.

In 1938, Edgar Hayes and His Orchestra recorded the riff under the title “In the Mood” for the first time, credited to Joe Garland, and for the first time you’ll hear that familiar introduction you remember from Miller’s version, but then—once again—a succession of other riffs. Dr. Boli thinks this performance is objectively better than Glenn Miller’s version, but it is more complex, which puts it at a disadvantage.

Artie Shaw bought “In the Mood” from Joe Garland, though as far as Dr. Boli knows he never made a record of it. By the late 1930s, though, radio broadcasts were often being transcribed, sometimes by amateurs with good home recording equipment, so here is a live performance by Artie Shaw of “In the Mood.” You will note that it is six and a half minutes long, because although Shaw’s band slows it down to a speed even slower than Miller’s recording, the Shaw version still includes a whole string of other riffs. It would have taken two sides of a ten-inch record if it had been commercially released. Shaw seems to have decided that it was too long and boring and didn’t know how to fix it.

And so finally we come to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” and we can see what Miller did to it. He simplified it radically, eliminating all but a couple of the riffs, and returning to the introductory riff with some of his trademark trick stops to pound it into your brain. Dr. Boli will emphasize that this is not a bad recording. It’s pretty good swing music. It just isn’t as good as any of the others (with the exception of Artie Shaw’s, which Dr. Boli agrees is too long and boring). But it is much, much simpler and demands much less attention from the musical part of your brain.

Glenn Miller was actually a very talented arranger who got his start writing remarkable scores for the Dorsey Brothers. When he formed his own band, he thought he would finally have a chance to pull out all the stops and write really interesting stuff. (Listen to his “I Got Rhythm,” where he outweighs the melody with a flamboyant countermelody in the reeds—and of course ends with some of his trademark trick stops.) He nearly starved to death. Just before he and the band opened their last can of Heinz Vegetarian Baked Beans, he hit on the winning formula of appealing to the musical lowbrows, and the rest is history—proving H. L. Mencken’s dictum that no one ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American public.

So, once again, it is Dr. Boli’s contention that Glenn Miller’s was indeed a swing band, and he does not have to like the band to say that. It meets the objective criteria of four-beat rhythm, riffs, jazz solos, and all the other things that make up swing as a style. It just isn’t Dr. Boli’s idea of good swing music. He will go back to the Mills Blue Rhythm Band for that. Mr. Salmon has good taste in the only objective way anyone can be said to have good taste, which is that his taste agrees with Dr. Boli’s.


Tragic Backstory Academy. A new student at the Academy is shunned, mocked, bullied, and hounded to the brink of suicide for being the only student without a tragic backstory. Check local listings.