Sunday, February 26, 2023

PUT ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER [385]


I write to learn, so I remain perplexed about the growth, and more recently the explosion, of the use of artificial intelligence in the construction of essays and articles – I hesitate to describe it as “writing”. Having set myself the challenge in 2023 of writing at least one A4 page of diary every day, running to approximately three hundred words, then the mere act of writing one word after another really isn’t hard at all, even if you must go back on yourself to edit redundant words. Writing an article won’t take much effort if you know your subject, unless you are also relying on your AI program to gather the necessary information on that subject.

I promise the above paragraph was typed by hand. I have thought of engaging the use of an AI chatbot to see what it would come out with, but it is very hard to find one that could produce a satisfactorily entertaining result, or not require me to create a login or pay to use it – if you want help, or you simply want to cheat time and process, then you have now created a marketplace, and the producers want paying. Not only is it more rewarding to write that essay yourself, but it is also cheaper.

ChatGPT has been the AI chatbot causing the most ructions right now, for its delivery of prose, and even poetry, in a both a naturalistic style and in imitation of other writers. As a “Generative Pre-trained Transformer” with as many available samples of the written word stacked behind it, ChatGPT has been fine-tuned to sample a number of desired outputs from the question posed to it, rank those outputs in order, and uses an evaluator protocol that optimises and produces the most rewarding answer, both for the end user and in the future machine learning involved in “training” the chatbot to continue producing the correct answer. However, the overall aim is to take a word, and decide what the next word should be. Basic rules of grammar will get you half the way, until you must make a decision.

One limitation to ChatGPT is it can sometimes produce a nonsensical answer due to having no source of truth to draw upon in its sample writing, or that previous training caused it to be too cautious in selecting the correct answer, or even select the incorrect answer altogether. This is described in artificial intelligence terms as a “hallucination”, despite a person’s hallucination appearing to be real without having any external stimulus. What I would be worried about is proofreading: no-one should take anything they read entirely as read without proper evaluation, or trust in the evaluation another person has done.

With OpenAI, the research team behind ChatGPT, looking into “watermarking” its answers to avoid plagiarism, the turning point will not be when AI can produce infallible answers – the machines will only take over when their hallucinations are eliminated.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

THE TOTALLY TROPICAL TASTE [384]


“Lilt matters. Show me someone who hasn’t had a hangover turned around after drinking a Lilt and I’ll show you a liar”, wrote Esther Watson on the website of news magazine “The Spectator” on Valentine’s Day. “No, this is a disaster for people of good taste, never mind the woke-or-not debates.”

 

Earlier the same day, The Coca-Cola Company announced that the drink they introduced in 1975 (which I mentioned when talking about Tizer) will be rebranded as “Fanta Pineapple & Grapefruit”, after a few months of using altered the fruit-flavoured soda range’s branding, being labelled as “by Fanta”, and switching to use Fanta’s moulded bottles. 

 

The drink itself remains untouched, but Watson was not reassured: “How can these people expect us loyal Lilt drinkers to trust them when they didn’t even have the decency to give us advanced warning of their plans and time to come to terms with this shock – and, more importantly, stockpile?” I don’t know if Watson’s touch was in her cheek as she wrote, later saying that Fanta – “a silly brand and mediocre at best” - didn’t taste of pineapple or grapefruit, as if the point of the announcement had been missed accidentally, or for effect. I don’t expect Fanta Lemon to taste of pineapple.

 

Elsewhere, Nels Abbey wrote in “The Guardian” that Lilt “could not have been less authentic as a ‘taste of the tropics’ if it wore fake dreadlocks and called itself Bob Marley Brew”, while cheese maker and Blur bassist Alex James wrote in “The Sun” – in an article that erroneously claimed Coca-Cola had bought the brand – talked about other brands that should be brought back, like Spangles and Panda Pops. This is on top of various people on social media saying their life had been ruined, and further misunderstanding that it is the drink that is being discontinued, not the brand.

 

I will not lament about progress. This happened in September 2022 when BBC Radio 5 Live dropped the Saturday classified football results [link], a moment to deplore change, followed by everyone moving on. The same will happen here – no-one dashed their brains out when Marathon chocolate bars were renamed to Snickers, and people still bought Opal Fruits when they became Starburst.  

 

My comedy song “Nostalgia’s Gonna Get You” [link] features the line “Quatro soda, still alive” for all the reasons shown above. Quatro was on sale during the 1980s, and was a carbonated soft drink made of pineapple, grapefruit, orange and passion fruit. Many similar drinks are available under brands like Rubicon and Rio. Even people who think Lilt has been discontinued can buy Caribbean Crush, with pineapple, grapefruit and mango, by Levi Roots, he of the Reggae Reggae Sauce, and with a greater claim to the tropical imagery previously used to advertise Lilt.

 

Because it is only the name that is changing, talking about Lilt in the sense that is going away almost feels like it has been anthropomorphised, imbuing it with a soul to then be taken away. Products change their names all the time, either out of necessity – Uncle Ben’s rice becoming Ben’s Original, or Aunt Jemima becoming the Pearl Milling Company – or when a product is improved, like Sibbs SR toothpaste eventually becoming Mentadent P.

 

The only way I can reconcile this thought is people placing the product or brand into their own history, with its demise amounting to a rewriting of history. Again, Lilt has not been “cancelled” in this regard. Coca-Cola’s press release about the name change mentioned that Lilt was the number 2 carbonated tropical drink in the UK, so not enough people were buying it to make it number 1. If those nostalgic enough for Lilt still bought it, would it have stayed?


I am not a fan of grapefruit, so I have rarely tried Lilt. Coca-Cola sell a Piña Colada-flavoured Fanta in the United States – can I have that instead? 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

COME ABOARD, WE’RE EXPECTING YOU [383]


One thing I learned from my visit to the SeaCity Museum in Southampton is that I love looking at model ships in glass cases. With the museum comprising of three major sections, telling the story of the RMS Titanic and its fateful maiden voyage from Southampton in 1912, the story of Southampton as a major seafaring port, and a rotating display of items from the city council’s archives, at every point no opportunity is lost to display a model of a ship in a glass case. From the 1:25 scale model of RMS Queen Mary, reproduced to a terrifying level of detail by the same shipyard that built the full-size ship, to the latest of the Lego “Titanic” models, this is the closest I can get to experiencing the glamour and opulence of transatlantic travel.

It's odd wanting to travel on something that no longer exists – I sincerely doubt the Queen Mary could move from its spot in Long Beach, California after fifty years, and the SS United States, gutted of its insides and facing an uncertain future in Philadelphia has been out of service for just as long. No-one has reason to build ocean liners of their type, with only Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 maintaining a transatlantic route for only part of the year, its status as a Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) being a ceremonial gesture to the old days of “steam packet” routes across the world. Passenger jets rendered obsolete the ships built to withstand the punishment of the Atlantic Ocean, and ill-equipped to be adapted for cruising, where the ship itself became the destination – only the bottom half of the Queen Mary 2 is built like an ocean liner of old, its superstructure being a modern cruise ship.


I personally find the SS Normandie to be the best-looking ocean liner ever made, from the sweeping lines of its streamlined exterior to the interior presided over by Pierre Patout, a founder of the Art Deco style, with no two first-class cabin designed the same way. However, it entered service in 1935, and many countries’ liners were built with government subsidies that predicated on their being converted for military use if required – Cunard’s original RMS Mauretania, launched in 1906, was also built to be an armed merchant cruiser, with added cannons, but the cost of running such an enormous ship led to ocean liners fulfilling wartime duties as troop carriers and hospital ships. (The Normandie would be requisitioned by the United States when the Nazis took over France in World War II, but it caught fire and capsized in 1942 during its conversion to troop transport, spending the rest of the war laying on its side.)

Cruise ships have changed the expectations of ocean-going passengers – my parents have visited the Queen Mary in California, and were amazed by how small it felt, particularly the cabins. The ships I would have liked the opportunity to travel on, an idea of “wouldn’t it be nice” tempered by thoughts of “it won’t sell these days”, were Cunard’s RMS Media and RMS Parthia. Half the length of the Queen Mary, they operated from Liverpool to New York, transporting a maximum of 250 passengers, all in first class, plus freight. They were Katharine Hepburn’s favourite transatlantic ships, and their more contained and relaxed nature makes it easy to see why. Apart from two decks of cabins, the common rooms were contained on one deck featuring a lounge, drawing room, smoking room, cocktail bar, a long gallery and promenade, library, dining room and barber shop. No swimming pool, no rollercoaster, no climbing wall, only opportunities to relax, sit and chat. Both jet travel and cargo ships would curtail the Media and Parthia’s careers with Cunard in 1961, sold to be refitted as cruise liners carrying substantially more passengers. 



Sunday, February 5, 2023

I’D LIKE TO BE A GALLERY [382]


Andy Warhol, by turns a renowned artist, counter-cultural figurehead and inventor of our modern notion of celebrity, has to my surprise only appeared three times on this website so far: regarding the endless reproduction of Arnold Machin’s image of Queen Elizabeth II on British postage stamps [link]; as an associate of the iconic artist Keith Haring [link]; and as a man whose career changed when he painted his lunch [link]. Having now belatedly watched “The Andy Warhol Diaries”, a Netflix series I should have known about much earlier, I feel I need to review that latter article, written back in September 2016, because I am not entirely sure of the point I wanted to make.

In the article, I explained that Warhol ate the same lunch of Campbell’s Condensed Soup and Coca-Cola for twenty years, presumably saving thinking time. In an act of “method writing”, I ate the same lunch, finding it not to sustain through to dinner time. I think I was trying to say the whole move could be counterproductive, if that indeed was what Warhol was doing.

Rather than painting what surrounded him, Warhol was responding to a friend’s suggestion to paint objects already familiar to people. In the event, the reaction to the first Coca-Cola and Campbell’s paintings was either bemusement or outrage – I tried to point out that making the individual objects by hand, from mixing the drink and cooking the soup, through to blowing the glass bottle and printing the labels, would be extremely difficult. This may be the kernel of my article, having a point to make, and building a case surrounding it, using names well-known to people, particularly that of Warhol.

I then quoted from “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol”, where he stated that what made the United States great was how it “started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… the more equal something is, the more equal it is”. This feeds into Pop Art being based in the use of imagery from popular culture, and in the democracy of art as the levelling of a playing field – anything can become art. It’s a good point worth making, but only because we have seen how this is developed into works like Damien Hirst’s embalmed shark, and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.

I would try not to write the last sentence of the article today: “For Andy Warhol, having had his first successful art show, he could concentrate on pictures of what he enjoyed the most – soup, Coca-Cola, money and celebrity.” The parodic, postmodern incarnation of celebrity of classical Hollywood celebrity pioneered by Warhol’s Factory of paintings, films and actors, and continued in one sense by video content creators from their home studios, makes the process transparent – interviews with Warhol always looked for profound replies, only to be met by a banal reply that could be misinterpreted as superficial. We know enough about Warhol, especially from his Diaries, to now there was a three-dimensional person behind the image he created, and the business his art was produced. The human drive to create, and to remain vital, loom large in Warhol’s career, the celebrity and money being the reward.

I'll have a better article about Warhol in due course, once I think of a better idea.