October 28, 2007

Tale Spin at “Smart Machines”

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 8:44 pm
Smart Machines at Boston Computer Museum

From my earlier post on James Meehan’s Tale-Spin (now with a new comment from Scott Turner, author of Minstrel) some may remember that there are three versions of the system that I know about. First, the full Tale-Spin, created by Meehan at Yale, then pursued further at UC Irvine. Second, Micro Tale-spin, created as a pedagogical example by Meehan (and translated into Common Lisp by Warren Sack). Third, the version created by Meehan for “Smart Machines” — an exhibition at the Boston Computer Museum in 1987.

I find the original Tale-Spin a fascinating system. Unfortunately, it seems completely lost. Meehan (now at Google) has been through his garage on my behalf, with no luck. Chances of archives remaining at Yale or UCI seem slim.

Micro Tale-spin, while instructive, is so simplified that it loses much of what was compelling to me about the original.

This leaves us with the version created for “Smart Machines.” According to Meehan, it existed at a level of complexity between that of the full and micro versions. For the past year I’ve been hoping to find it.

When the Boston Computer Museum shut down, most of its collections went to the Computer History Museum, in California. I’ve been in contact with Al Kossow, the museum’s software curator. He told me that he thought the Boston Computer Museum mostly archived its donations of historical artifacts, rather than the materials created for exhibition. He also confirmed this with Oliver Strimpel, who was in charge of the “Smart Machines” exhibit.

Smart Machines catalog page with Tale-Spin story

So I think we can likely declare that Tale-Spin, in any but the “micro” version, is lost. However, the archive image here (courtesy of the Computer History Museum) provides us with one canonical story from the 1987 version:

Once upon a time…. Joe was in the cave. Irving was in the oak tree. Lucy was in the meadow. The water was in the river. The honey was in the elm tree. The worm was in the ground. The fish was in the river. The hay was in the barn. The berries were in the meadow. Joe was sad. He wanted to become happy. He thought that Lucy liked him. He wanted to persuade her to kiss him. He trusted her. He didn’t like her. He decided that if he gives her the hay then she might kiss him. He wanted to ask her whether if he gives her the hay then she’ll kiss him. He wanted to get near her. He went to the meadow. He asked her, “Will you kiss me if I give you the hay?” She knew that he didn’t trust her. She decided that if he gives her the hay then she’ll tell him that he was stupid. She told him, “If you give me the hay then I’ll kiss you.” He wanted to get the hay. He wanted to get near the hay. He went to the barn. He took the hay. He had the hay. He wanted to get hear her. He went to the meadow. He gave her the hay. She had the hay. He didn’t have the hay. She was hungry. She told him, “You’re stupid.” He didn’t like her. She wanted to satisfy her hunger. She ate the hay. She wasn’t hungry. She didn’t kiss him. He didn’t trust her. He was afraid of her. He couldn’t persuade her to kiss him. He was still sad. The End.

Of course, what I find fascinating about Tale-Spin is something we can see by examining its processes — rather than something we see in its output. So I wish the catalog had included a system diagram, rather than a sample story. Still, I think this is the first I’ve heard that Tale-Spin, in any version, could produce stories about kissing.

One Response to “Tale Spin at “Smart Machines””


  1. Grand Text Auto » Fa├žade, Petz, and The Expressivator Says:

    [...] about a number of influential digital fiction systems, including James Meehan’s Tale-Spin (1 2), Scott Turner’s Minstrel (1 2), and Michael Lebowitz’s Universe (1). Now I’m [...]

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