Mar-a-Lago's Loose Nukes
Trumpworld, illustrated by Craiyon the AI. Plus: a Belle Époque courtesan, and my father's poem about an elephant.
So this week I was supposed to review a book about Paris’s most fabulous Belle Époque courtesan. Typically, though, I procrastinated until the very last minute, and then, when the news from Mar-a-Lago broke, I went on a 48-hour Twitter bender.
For readers who haven’t been paying attention to US politics, on Tuesday, the F.B.I—oh, never mind, who am I kidding? I’m sure even uncontacted tribesmen who nourish themselves on dugongs and monitor lizards and pray to a Coca-Cola bottle that washed ashore in 1983 have heard what happened in Mar-a-Lago. I don’t need to fill you in.
During my Twitter binge, I discovered two new AI programs—and that was it for my week. But the good news is you’ll love them. First, the less astonishing one. Rytr, according to its website, “is an AI writing assistant that helps you create high-quality content, in just a few seconds, at a fraction of the cost!”
That got my attention. Might I be able to fire and replace myself? That would solve my problem! So I asked Rytr the AI to write my book review.
In fairness, I gave it an usually tricky task, not least because the best part of the story involves a very sly French double entendre. Rytr would have to know that, and then render the bon mot in equally witty English, using a tone appropriate for a family-friendly newspaper. Tricky. The task had been stumping me for the past two days, so I was dubious.
Still, Rytr promised to deliver killer content, effortlessly, and the site is full of reviews like this:
Just so you know, the phrase in question is la pompe funèbre, which is the nickname the press assigned to the mistress of President Félix Faure. Pompe is a noun deriving from the Latin pompa, meaning ceremony (the English word pomp has the same etymology). Funèbre means funereal, somber, lugubrious. La pompe funèbre may be translated as funeral, funeral rites, funeral service, funeral arrangements, funeral home, funeral director, or even undertaker,1 and the joke emerges because pomper is also a cognate for the English verb pump, and I don’t think I want to explain this any further, so you can look it up.
I asked my bilingual friends if they could help, saying I wanted it to be at least half as funny in English as it is in French. We gave it quite a bit of thought.
You grasp the challenge. What’s more, translating the joke was only one of the many skills I needed Rytr to demonstrate. Would it be able to render an appropriate intellectual and aesthetic judgment on a book? You’ll remember that LaMDA, the sentient Google chatbot, convinced his handler that he had the mind of a bright six-year-old. I didn’t think my editor would be pleased if I sent her a review written by a bright six-year-old.
That said, I didn’t think she’d be pleased if I sent her no review at all. So I gave Rytr a few keywords and considered the menu of tone choices. (I went with “informative,” though I was sorely tempted by “inspirational.”)
Alas, my skepticism was merited. Here’s what it came up with:
President Félix Faure, a man of impeccable social standing and one of the most powerful men in France, died of a heart attack while in the arms of his mistress. The scandal rocked France and is remembered as one of the most dramatic events in Belle Époque history.
The Belle Époque was a time of great social change. It was also a time of great economic growth and prosperity. The world had never seen such an explosion in new technologies and inventions as it did during this time. It was also the time when courtesans became famous. Courtesans were the women who entertained men of high society in the city’s grand hotels, restaurants, theaters, and nightclubs. They were the first women to be independent entrepreneurs in what would later become known as “the sex industry.”
President Faure’s mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, became famous for her beauty and her political connections. She is best known for her affair with President Félix Faure and her subsequent trial and scandal after his death. On November 2, 1899, President Félix Faure died suddenly while visiting Marguerite Steinheil’s house at Neuilly-sur-Seine. The president’s death had been attributed to cardiac arrest or a stroke before the autopsy revealed …
Now, don’t get me wrong. For an AI, it’s amazing. It’s good enough to replace 99 percent of professional journalists and copywriters. But that’s only because our written culture has become so degraded and our public so illiterate that 99 percent of readers can’t recognize banal and pedestrian prose.
Disappointed, I realized I’d have to spend hours reading the book and writing this review the pre-Singularity way.
Fair enough, I thought, as I scribbled away. You can’t expect to get Dorothy Parker out of an AI that promises “high quality content.”
Yes, you can. The other AI—the drawing tool—is Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp in a box.
Craiyon, as the AI is called, draws images from any text prompt. If you have something you need to do today, don’t click this link. But if you want to spend a few hours thinking about something other than the raid on Mar-a-Lago, give it a whirl. It will leave you applauding like you’re at a circus.
It’s talented. It’s whimsical. It’s witty. If the word creative has any meaning, it applies to Craiyon the AI. Illustrators and graphic designers, say goodbye to your jobs, because you’re about to be as obsolete and unemployable as a Yorkshire coal miner.
Let me show you. Remember how I was looking for someone to illustrate the children’s poems my father wrote in Songs of the Serious Animals? Let’s give one to Craiyon:
An elephant once spent Some time In looking for a lovely rhyme He thought that bent Would match Tashkent But couldn’t say Why bent Tashkent Should be so gay.
Again—that’s hard. Another pun. A particular, whimsical mood. Unexpected imagery.
For an illustration of this poem to be any good, it would have to work at several levels. For little kids, it should be colorful, simple, appealing, and innocent. They won’t and shouldn’t get the joke.
But for their parents, who will get the joke—and they’re the ones who buy books, so they’re the real audience—it has to be far more sophisticated. You need an illustration that amuses them, too, and still amuses them even after they’ve read this book out loud fifty times. Children’s tastes and adults’ tastes are different. If you’re an adult who likes art that appeals to children, it’s because you have bad taste.
So the drawing has to work at two levels, be charming at both levels, and be age-appropriate at both levels. Even if I had the skill to draw an elephant faithfully, I wouldn’t have the first clue how to achieve this. I couldn’t begin to tell an illustrator what this drawing ought to look like.
“Draw this poem for me,” I commanded the AI.
It cogitated for few seconds. Then it spit these out:
Could they be more perfect?
So, instead of sending you updates on the world’s news, I’ve spent the past two days playing with Craiyon and wondering what they found in Mar-a-Lago.
Since I no more know the answer to that question than you do—and since I reckon you don’t really need more bloviating poppycock from yet another woman on the Internet who in fact has no clue what’s going on but who has a Very Strong Opinion all the same—I thought I’d ask Craiyon the AI to illustrate what we do know of the story. I fed the headlines to Craiyon, and told it to get to work.
The Week, by Craiyon
There you go. Now you’re totally up-to-date.
From now on, Craiyon the AI will be the Cosmopolitan Globalist’s in-house illustrator. Welcome aboard, Craiyon! Your cubicle will be just outside the toilet on the left. Don’t forget to bring donuts for the Monday morning staff meeting!
And what of the rest of the world, Claire? You’re supposed to be keeping us up to date on global affairs, and you’ve spent the week doing—what, exactly?
I know. Believe me, you could not castigate me more than I’m castigating myself. Please don’t fire me and replace me with an AI just yet. I’ve been editing articles for you and adding items to Global Eyes all week. I just haven’t managed to finish anything and mail it out. Given you’ve told me you hate getting really long newsletters, tell me how you want me to manage this:
Let me know, and I’ll send it out later today.
Claire and Craiyon
Just one word in French, but so many in English? Yes, as I explain here: I hereby rise to the defense of the Académie Française. On being told that it would be impossible to finish his English dictionary in three years because the French Academy, with its forty forty members, had taken forty years to compile the French dictionary, Dr. Johnson replied: “Sir, let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”