The Story

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Meanwhile..

So although I finished up on the virtual Giant Monsters a couple of weeks ago, I still had to face ACTUAL Giant Monsters in the form of a live audience at The Story last Friday. A great time was had by all, including even me when I emerged from my haze of terror!

I’ve assembled a slideshow of my talk– with the warning that THIS POWERPOINT CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ORGANSIT! It’s about 15 minutes long; that incoherent high-pitched squeaking you hear is me erming and ahing and forgetting all my brilliant punchlines.

I believe you can see it a bit bigger onsite at myplick.

I also did a little comic for their handout newspaper thingie (click for larger):

Footnotes to the comic!

–“Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait” was the motto of Wilkie Collins; he was pretty good at it, as anyone kept up until 3 in the morning by the last chapters of “No Name” can attest. Personally I’ve nailed the ‘Make ‘Em Wait’ part.

–Charles Babbage did indeed propose writing a three-volume novel, as he describes in his autobiography: “solely for the purpose of making money to assist me in completing the Analytical Engine.” On consulting with a poet friend, he received the dispiriting news that it was likely to cost him more to publish a novel than he would ever earn back from it.

–The Classics gag (Latin and Greek) is shamelessly robbed from Alice in Wonderland; Laughing and Grief are amongst the subjects (along with Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils) included in the excellent education of the Mock Turtle.

–In her Notes on the Analytical Engine, Ada Lovelace speculates that the Engine could potentially “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”– that is, ” supposing that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations”. Computer-composed music has been achieved; the world still awaits scientific storytelling.

AND, if that’s not enough crazy overexposure, I’m going to be on the ShiftRunStop podcast this week, where they have inexplicably asked me to appear despite having heard my Smooth Dulcet Tones at The Story.

This entry has been heroically posted inbetween hockey periods.

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  1. ENKI-2 on February 12, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    On the subject of “scientific storytelling”:
    There have been several notable attempts, some more successful than others. These include the famous The Policeman’s Face Was Half Constructed, which was referenced constantly in the AI publications of the nineteen eighties as a success story.
    The most interesting example of computer-generated narratives is the Arctech Gemini personal robot. There is scant material on the Internet about it: though all of the marketing material, software, and schematics are extant and available, one cannot determine the veracity of the marketing material without actually building a replica from the schematics, and I have managed to find no videos of the machine in action aside from a short television advertisement. That said, among its functions is speech recognition and the telling of procedurally generated stories — something that while easy to do poorly is very difficult to do adequately. Given that the Gemini also performed tasks like self-charging, the recognition of people from their voices, automatic house mapping and navigation, singing and dancing, and the tutoring of children with feedback from performance, it may well be that the Gemini created and told stories with narrative cohesion.

  2. Josef Svenningsson on March 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Here’s a nice twist on the scientific storytelling. A couple of MIT guys wrote a program to generate scientific papers that would look genuine of you just had a quick glance at them or just read the odd sentence here and there. They’ve had lots of fun with this submitting generated papers to low standard scientific conferences and getting accepted! Find out more here:

  3. Ginny on March 18, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Story-writing programs aren’t common but plot software has been around for years. Example: Google ‘plot software’ to see a long list.

    Somehow I don’t think any of them include the ‘conflict with the organist’ plotline, though.

  4. John on March 8, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    You seem to be doing fine with “make’em laugh,” too. And if you make us wait much longer, it’ll be a clean sweep! Or, in deference to your situation, I guess it can be a hat trick.

    Man, the possibility of a three-volume novel by Babbage with profuse illustrations (by which, I assume, he means “tables”) would be a sight to see. A shame he actually did his homework before getting the ball rolling.

    Regarding Hollywood, I’m reminded by the one thing Dave Barry said that I found funny, to the effect that, somewhere in Hollywood, there’s a machine that designs the premises for sitcoms, running calculations and spitting out little cards that say, “three quirky yet attractive people share an apartment,” “five quirky yet attractive people share an apartment,” and so on. He wanted to destroy it, but it does explain a lot.

  5. tikitu on March 7, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    That is spectacular. Bulwer Lytton and Babbage on the same page… (Oooh, tell me Vampire Poets begins on a dark and stormy night!)

    So Gary McGraw’s diss is at (the stories are in chapter 3). Montfort’s tiny story generator (which makes the reader do most of the work) is at

  6. sydney on March 7, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Hey tikitu, I think you just have to put the full url and people can cut-and-paste.. at least until I get more sophisticated comments plugin!

    Computer-generated storytelling has a venerable history– I’m saving it up for Vampire Poets but check out Babbage’s Automatic Novelist, circa 1844-

    (you see how awkward those links are?)

  7. tikitu on March 7, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Oh hey what should I do to make my links actually links?

  8. tikitu on March 7, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Bella: feel free, I’m quite sure I didn’t invent it.

    Sydney: the more I think about it, the more appropriate MINSTREL seems for Hollywood films. It basically worked by template matching: taking familiar pre-defined chunks of story-potential and clicking them together. Which seems to be all that most of Hollywood is doing anyway, and the Difference Engine is probably cheaper to run than a stable of scriptwriters.

    In defence of those guys, though, they were trying to figure out what makes “a story” (in that incredibly optimistic symbolic AI spirit: “Once we build a machine that can do it, we’ll understand it!”). TALESPIN made a tiny simulation of characters with motivations and actions with consequences … oops, turns out there’s more to a story than that. Later attempts tried to work in reader-directed narrative structure, but that (of course) turns out to be the hard part.

    (It doesn’t help that the simple business of producing sentences, let alone stories, that read naturally turns out to be extraordinarily difficult.)

    As for the human brain seeing stories, Nick Montfort has an example.

    Erk. I just hit “19th century search functions”. That is just begging to be taken literally…

  9. E-Wit on March 5, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Keep it up, Sydney — my friends count on me to alert them to the latest Lovelace and Babbage. And I do!

  10. Bella Green on March 3, 2010 at 3:19 am

    Sydney, hear you with the presentation terror thing. It’s worth it though, ne?

    Tikitu, can I quote the ‘google fu’? That’s the funniest thing I heard today. Thanks!

    • sydney on March 3, 2010 at 8:55 am

      HI Bella– As to whether presentations are worth it.. I dunno– never been called ‘ditsy’ before I must say so it must have an unfortunate effect of some kind. TED hasn’t called yet, anyways..

      – Martha– thank you very kindly, it really makes my day when I hear people are enjoying the comic!

      – Snowbody– I don’t know if I could have gotten it myself– I used to read Martin Gardener’s Annotated Alice over and over when I was a kid, I guess it’s where I picked up a taste for footnotes!

      – tikitu– heh there’s a guy attempting to make Hollywood films even worse than they already are with a storytelling software, similar to that hit tune thing I need to find a link to. I don’t know about these entirely artificial stories, they strike me as successful only in the way UK plug sockets are successful artificial faces. The human brain will force a story on anything even vaguely story-shaped!

      – Ceridwen– I can’t wait for that part too :D

      – Pat- a Google books gag seemed called for.. gotta say though, I seem to be google books greatest fan at the moment, no way I could do the comic without their amazing 19th century search functions.

  11. Martha on March 1, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    This was beautiful, especially the part about it being a well-known fact that writing a book=£££££!!1!

    Lovelace and Babbage is simply one of the most delightful comics I’ve read in years, and it never fails to make me smile. So, thank you :)

  12. Snowbody on March 1, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    Oh My. Thanks for pointing out that CLD was punning with the MT’s topics of study – I first read Alice in Wonderland over 25 years ago and never figured out the significance of that random list of words. Guess the mock turtle was a dual design/classics major.

  13. tikitu on March 1, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    In our timeline scientific storytelling has been around since the ’80s — it started surprisingly well, and then sort of … didn’t get any better. TALE-SPIN and MINSTREL (yes, from the era when programs got all-caps names) are the standard references. It’s surprisingly hard to track down actual examples of the stories they produced (or my google-fu is weak today), but there are a couple of nice ones in Chapter 3 of Gary McGraw’s dissertation (on automatic font design — another problem for the Difference Engine!).

    TALE-SPIN told stories about a small cast of animals that like or dislike each other and get hungry and fall in the river and suchlike. MINSTREL told stories with a moral (Aesop-style) about knights and dragons and princesses. More amusing than the successful stories are the ones that showcase some bug in the system:

    “Henry Squirrel was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. Gravity drowned.”

    Btw, as I think this is my first comment here: I love what you’re doing with these two. And the commentary on each post is great too — I’ve followed some of your references and found delightful stuff.

  14. Ceridwen on March 1, 2010 at 3:32 am

    The book-writing comic is delicious! Works well, too – cliff-hangers always were popular.

    Despite that, I love spoilers. Am now waiting for the xxxxxxxxxx xx xxxxxxx by the xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx with ‘bated breath.

  15. Pat Galea on February 28, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    “If they have a problem, they’ll let us know.”