iTunes, At Sixteen


“No, iTunes,” my love said. “Who told you to play Pink Floyd?” It had interrupted its regular shuffle playlist, mostly Sparks songs, for this.

“You don’t ask iTunes to play Pink Floyd,” I said. “iTunes is sixteen years old. It just plays Pink Floyd naturally.” My love chuckled, and I realized, this was true. Suddenly the world made more sense than it had before, which is always a neat trick.

For example, nobody has known how to get iTunes to do anything on purpose for at least three years now. Even something that it can allegedly do, like put a new album on my iPod, is a process that requires upwards of three weeks, considerable screaming, and the need to repair the drywall after somebody punches two holes in it. I know this makes me sound a little temperamental but I think the drywall had considerably more dry and rather less wall than standard. Also it’s just putting an album onto the iPod like it kept saying it was doing, without actually doing it.

I recognize this behavior. I was sixteen once. In fact, I was sixteen some 365 times, although the times were all one after the other. That makes it a little hard to directly compare to being other ages. (I don’t want to brag, but I was fifteen 366 times, because I was born in a leap year after March.) My father could explain all sorts of things I should be doing, and I’d agree to the principle, without getting around to any of them except for watching Get Smart. Why should iTunes be any different?

But that means some exciting stuff for iTunes in the next couple years. I mean if it gets out of its sullen teenage years without everyone closing it into its bedroom and never telling when we move into a new house. For example, there’s two years from now when it goes off to college.

There iTunes will surely float into the student newspaper circle. Probably it’ll end up on one of the left-wing weeklies because those make for fun offices. There, with its relentlessly earnest attitude and generically positive view of authority figures it’ll be tagged by the staff as their leading suspect for the secret FBI plant. It’s flattering to a left-wing student weekly to think it rates a secret FBI plant.

iTunes won’t realize the rest of the staff suspects it’s the FBI plant, of course. It’s too naive for that sort of thing, what with how it goes all its undergraduate years without realizing some of the others on the staff were smoking the marihuana. iTunes never really deliberately sabotages the paper, which is disappointing to them. It indicates they aren’t being read enough.

Still, its presence takes the attention completely off the actual FBI plants. The first of these is the arts editor who dresses in heavy trenchcoats, throws around phrases like “sans the ennui, s’il vous plait” in earnest, and whose music preference is “people with British accents screaming obscenities in obscure time signatures”. The second is the quiet fellow who writes reasonable-sounding right-of-center-for-the-paper pieces and insists on how he lives by the code of the Klinzhai, not the Klingons, thank you. But he does wear the Klingon pin because they’re so much better-marketed. Neither of them suspects the other is an FBI plant. It’s easier that way. They’re trying to make the paper read enough to be worth sabotaging.

Probably iTunes will also major in something, which isn’t always a mistake, and perhaps go on to graduate school. If it asks me I support this, because grad school is the best time of life. It’s years of just hanging out with your friends. All you have to do is grade awful exam papers by freshmen and sometimes get glowered at by your advisor. iTunes is well set for that, what with how it gets nothing but glowered at anymore. It won’t actually do anything while in grad school, but that’s all right. The only thing you have to do in grad school is someday leave.

And then what might iTunes do after grad school? A temp job in a foreign country? Hiding out in a suburb of Ypsilanti, Michigan, before going back to more grad school? Reviewing British musicians who scream obscenities in obscure time signatures?

Well, it turns out I was completely wrong. iTunes came out in January of 2001. It’s only fourteen years old. That’s right, it’s actually younger than the Tony Shalhoub/Neil Patrick Harris sitcom Stark Raving Mad. There’s no guessing what its next couple of years will be like.

Betty Boop: Sally Swing


Previously entered as the first Betty Boop cartoons:


When Betty Boop first appeared here character design was, frankly, hideous. She was some sort of humanoid dog and the canine ears and such just did not flatter her. Within a couple cartoons she had taken on human form and, with only minor variations, the character model she’d stick with through nearly a decade of cartoons and then seventy or so years of licensed merchandise.

But she did have a character redesign after all, good for a handful of her final cartoons in 1938-39. Sally Swing, released the 14th of October, 1938, was the first of these. She isn’t radically changed. Her head shrinks and she gets somewhat taller, moving a slight bit away from the rubber-hose animal style of her origins in dim, distant 1930 and approaching, though not reaching, the soft-but-realistic bodies that the non-comic characters in the Fleischer Studios’ Gulliver’s Travels or the Superman cartoons would take on.

As the title might suggest, though, Betty isn’t quite the star of this cartoon. The storyline suggests this is meant to be an introduction to the new character of Sally Swing, who looks to be an attempt to do for bobby-soxers what Betty did for flappers. After an appealing introduction to the University and Betty Boop’s Examination Room, the story settles on Betty trying to find a suitable leader for a swing dance and what do you know but the hall’s washer-woman — voiced, a Betty Boop Wiki claims, by Rose Marie (the claim sounds plausible to me) and resembling, Rachel Newstead’s review at Orphan Toons shares, the Lois Lane the Fleischers would animate in a few years — is Sally Swing, perfect for the part.

And so the cartoon dissolves into several minutes of Sally Swing leading the band, and spot gags of the kind that feature most in musical cartoons like this: the band not quite falling apart into chaos, onlookers being swept wholly up in the music, sourpusses having no choice but to get in on the fun. It’s a fun cartoon, and pretty appealing. It’s curious to me that Sally Swing didn’t get an appearance in another cartoon, though. She certainly seems able to support the kind of plotless music-feature cartoon that this is an example of. On the other hand, there’s also not much about this that Betty Boop couldn’t do, if she dressed the part.

So I’m left wondering: why bother redesigning Betty Boop in a cartoon that seems meant to introduce a successor? Was it just so she’d look less awkward standing next to the 1938-design cartoon mistress? Having introduced a plausible successor, why not use her in other cartoons? Even if Sally Swing proved to not be as popular as Betty Boop, wouldn’t it take more than a “backdoor pilot” cartoon of this kind to tell? Or did she, on screen, disappoint in some way not obvious now? Or was she just lost in the trouble and trauma — a move to Miami, and the attempt to make full-length animated movies — of the studio at the time? There’s something missing in Sally Swing’s story.

My Fortune To Be Made: Grad Student Fantasy Camp


After thinking hard about my life, and talking with a bunch of former grad students, I’ve realized, pretty much the sweetest phase of life is being in grad school. Oh, there’s good stuff about being a real adult too, like owning a car that doesn’t need the alternator replaced every four months, and not having to explain to undergraduates that the course textbook is the one listed under “course textbook” on the syllabus, which is the thing on the class web site labelled “syllabus”, but most of the good stuff now was also good stuff then, and back then we didn’t have to pay off student loans. This is what inspires me to open a Grad Student Fantasy Camp.

Fantasy Camps are one of the two remaining growth sectors in the American economy, the other being podcasters doing complete rewatches of Star Trek. Fantasy Camps give a chance to do something great like pretend to be a baseball player or astronaut or Let’s Make A Deal host and then go home to add a bunch of new acquaintances that further diffuse the notion of “friend” on your Facebook. Here’s why and how Grad Student Fantasy Camp will work.

Who wants to attend Grad Student Fantasy Camp? Anyone who’s not satisfied with their academic career, which is everyone who went to grad school after 1992, when the last tenure-track position in their specialty was filled. Remember those teaching assistants dressed unconfidently and trying not to do the homework for you while explaining where you went wrong in recitation sections? They all spend this time of year sighing at the window while thinking of the days the biggest weights on their mind were when to maybe start studying for something called “quals”. They’ll pay nicely to feel like that for even a week.

And! The Grad Student theme lets us turn that into a brilliant pricing strategy. Whatever the actual cost is, we’ll say the price of the camp is, like, eight times that. But on “acceptance” to Grad Student Fantasy Camp the customer-student also gets tuition assistance, covering the cost of the first day in exchange for “work” as a TA. They’ll feel like they’re getting such a deal, whatever they actually pay.

The assistance offer gets “renewed” every day, up until the final day of camp when the student is notified the department has enjoyed your Grad Student experience as much as you have, but you should really be getting on with your thesis now. The student then defends a ritual thesis to an advisor, whom they pick on arbitrary grounds the third or fourth day, and three people the student never saw before or will see again, their committee.

The TA work will be grading “student assignments” themselves composed by a Markov chain generator so that there’s a limit to their madness. The grading is done in green pen, to make this legitimately challenging work, because humanity has never solved the problem of making a green pen that successfully writes.

Grad Student Fantasy Camp needs facilities, but by having it either in summer or over winter break we can rent out an actual college or university campus, or just count on not being noticed by the grad students teaching real summer courses. This way the Fantasy Camp gets the necessary buildings and a library that uses the Library of Congress Catalogue System For Crying Out Loud, What Is This Dewey Decimal Nonsense.

We’ll need faculty, to be advisors and committees, and to hold lectures that students can attend the first couple of days before they retreat to “work” on their “theses”. For them we hire adjuncts, who get not just pretty good per-hour pay but also the healing dignity of students who reflexively call them “Doctor” or “Professor” and wouldn’t dream of sending them e-mails addressing them by a contraction of their first names and filled with text-y abbreviations. Of course, to satisfy the students’ need to feel like they’re back in grad school, the faculty will have to seem older than even the students are, but that can be done by the faculty looking generally disapproving of things, and having every document on the class web site (proudly HTML 2.0 compliant) be a download in Rich Text Format.

For the social side of the experience, we’ll encourage students to hang out, reading the good bits of texts — not books, texts, maybe even volumes — from the GV, HS, PN, or maybe even the QC sections of the library while swapping stories about Electrical Engineering undergrads. After the second night our faculty starts inviting groups of students to bars around campus, sharing wild tales of intrigue in the University Senate and leading contests to see who can read without cracking up the longest from furious e-mails in which Brian Leiter threatens bloggers with defamation lawsuits. Around 2 am staff will remind students that there are perfectly good simulation or strategy games or text-based RP MOOs that aren’t going to play themselves. Of course we’ll have guitars at the ready just in case.

Graduation will be heartbreaking, but a sweet chance for a good department dinner at the brew pub where students and faculty promise to stay in touch. Maybe they even will a while, but — and here’s why Grad School Fantasy Camp will succeed — the tug back to campus will last, and bring the customer-students back, maybe several times a summer. I kind of want to go to it myself.

Interested? Please contact the admissions office, care of our confusing and unsearchable web site.

Your Technology Requirements Of Next Week, Today


I had good reason to be in Best Buy during New Student Orientation Week but don’t ask me what it was. Whatever it was comes in second to what I found, a bunch of sheets listing the Technology Requirements for the various universities that students might be going to somewhere around here.

According to Best Buy, according to the various universities, students really ought to have some kind of laptop, because apparently they haven’t noticed students have merged with their iPhones to become a big mass of people with better things to do than notice there’s a professor trying to turn them into informed citizens. I’m delighted they recommend not just getting a laptop but also an operating system and one that’s compatible with Microsoft Office, the leading way to get documents which, on any system, can be read with random lines of XXXXX marks or weird glyphs wherever you’re supposed to sign your name.

Also recommended: anti-virus software, showing that they’re right on top of the big computer security news of 1996 there, and every one of the local universities recommends a laptop with “wireless capabilities”. I considered asking a clerk if they had any laptops without wireless capabilities but was worried that one, in the eagerness to please, would make a laptop wireless-uncapable by the normal expedient of putting it in a transporter pod so as to catastrophically merge its molecules with those of a cinder block.

I didn’t buy anything there.