Gravity has no friends

One of the most interesting things about human language is the way that the things we say are merely an indicator of the things we do not say – of deeply mutual understandings of which our language is merely a signifier. In a sense, words and sentences are only a shorthand for a vastly larger meaning space, one that does not need to be explicitly represented because every one of us carries it around in our head.

We can only really appreciate this mutual understanding when we see attempts to replicate it in software – attempts that often fail in interesting ways. For example, today I learned, from a lecture by my friend Noah, about “Tale-Spin”, a software system developed by James Meehan to automatically generate stories. Most of the generated stories are fairly uninteresting, with the notable exception of the ones that fail – the stories in which the artificial intelligence inference logic broke down somewhere along the way. Here is one of my favorite Tale-Spin failures:

Henry Ant 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.

What on earth is going on here? How can gravity drown? It turns out that the story system understands that Henry is being pulled into the river by gravity. But it doesn’t understand that gravity is not, in fact, a character. In the internal logic that generated this story, Henry Ant survives his mishap because his good friend Bill Bird pulls him out in time.

Alas, gravity is not so lucky. Being a character in the story, and having nobody to pull it out of the river, poor gravity dies. Or, as Noah phrased it so poetically in his talk, “Gravity has no friends.”

How true.

One Response to “Gravity has no friends”

  1. L Mendoza says:

    reminded me of the song
    Wicked Gravity by Jim Carroll

    The gravity here is just sick for revenge
    It’s like my lungs are filled with chains . . .
    The sky seems so low,
    It hasn’t moved this slow
    Since the virgins, since the virgins went dancing for the rain

    You know the stars in the night
    They’re like the holes in the cave
    Like the ceiling of a bombed-out church
    But gravity blocks my screams
    It’s like an enemy’s dreams
    My guardians quit
    They quit before they started their search

    I want a world without gravity
    It could be just what I need
    I’d watch the stars move close
    I’d watch the earth recede

    I wanna drift above the borders against my will
    I wanna sleep where the angels don’t pass
    But now my lips are blue
    Gravity does it to you
    It’s like they’re pressed against a mirrored glass

    I want my will and capability to meet inside the region
    Where this gravity don’t mean a thing
    It’s where the angels break through . . .
    It’s where they bring it to you
    It’s where silence, silence can teach me to sing

    I wanna lay beneath these sheets and never turn blue
    I wanna hold you, hold you tight but never touch
    I want some pure, pure white; hey, we can nod all night
    We can do it without thinking too much

    I want the dilettantes and parvenues to choke on my wrists
    They think the pearls I wear are pills
    I want their gravity to shatter . . . but it really doesn’t matter
    I got something in my eye that kills!

    Wicked, wicked, wicked, wicked gravity . . .
    Wicked, wicked, wicked, wicked gravity . . .
    Wicked, wicked, wicked, wicked.

Leave a Reply