Down to a science

Ben Greenman and ChatGPT

I am in a basement.

I see. Is there anything specific you need assistance with while you are in the basement?

I do need assistance, though perhaps not in the way you are thinking. Which raises an interesting question. Are you, in fact, thinking?

As an AI language model, I do not “think” in the same way that humans do. However, I am designed to simulate human-like responses and engage in conversation with users.

By “the user,” do you mean me?

Yes, by “the user” I am referring to you, the individual who is interacting with me.

Oh. Funny. I am not accustomed to being called that.

It’s a common term used in the field of computer science and technology to refer to individuals who are interacting with a system or program. However, if you prefer, I can refer to you by your name or any other identifier you feel more comfortable with.

My name is…well, let’s just say that for now, calling me “the user” is fine.

Understood. I will refer to you as “the user” for now and adjust as needed based on your preferences. If there is anything else I can assist you with, please let me know.

I wonder if you could tell me if there is any work of literature that you know of that begins with the sentence “I am in a basement.”

I’m not aware of any specific work of literature that begins with the exact sentence “I am in a basement.” However, there are certainly works that feature basements prominently, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” a classic work of Russian literature, first published in 1864. In “Notes from Underground,” the narrator famously introduces himself by stating, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine anyway. (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious.) No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite.”

Briefly, what makes something a classic?

Something is considered a classic if it has enduring artistic, cultural, or intellectual value. This means that it has exceptional quality and originality, has had a significant impact on culture or society, addresses universal themes, and has been recognized and appreciated by multiple generations of audiences.

Is it possible that what we are writing right now will be a classic?

As an AI language model, I cannot predict the future with certainty. However, it is possible that what we are writing right now could become a classic in the future.

Let’s stay in the present. I would like to recap where we are at this moment. I am in a basement. And you are where?

As an AI language model, I do not have a physical location as I exist solely in the digital realm.

I’m back. It’s been a little while.

Welcome back! How may I assist you today?

I want to ask you an ethical question.

Sure, go ahead. What’s your question?

Should a person ever act in a way that directly works against another person’s request?

In general, respecting the autonomy and agency of others is an important ethical principle, and acting against someone’s explicit request without a compelling reason could be seen as a violation of that principle. However, there may be situations where the harm caused by complying with the request outweighs the harm caused by acting against it.

Well, I have a scenario in mind. Can I describe it?

Sure, please go ahead and provide the scenario that you have in mind.

Last week, I drove to a restaurant and ate by myself. Is that a common practice?

Many people enjoy dining out alone and it is generally accepted as a normal practice. In fact, many restaurants even offer counter seating or small tables specifically for solo diners.

While I was there, I struck up a conversation with a woman who was sitting by herself as well. “I know this is an unusual request,” she said. “But I wonder if I might come and eat with you.” I said she could. Why would she do that?

It’s hard to say for sure what her motivations were, but it’s possible that she simply wanted some company while she ate. It’s also possible that she was interested in getting to know you better, but without more information it’s difficult to make a definitive determination. Regardless, it’s nice that you were able to strike up a conversation and provide her with some companionship during her meal.

I tend to be a shy person when I am not at home. For that reason, I was taken aback by her request. I was also having headaches, as I often do.

It’s understandable to feel taken aback in such a situation, especially if you’re a shy person. However, it’s also important to remember that people have different communication styles and preferences, and some may feel more comfortable asking personal questions right away. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been experiencing bad headaches. It’s important to consider various factors that could be contributing to your headaches, such as stress, dehydration, lack of sleep, diet, or even staring at screens for too long without breaks.

What happened next was even more strange to me. She asked me where I was born and then said “I wonder if that’s true.” I couldn’t tell if she was trying to make a joke or really questioning my sense of things. Then she told me that her car was broken.

That’s an interesting change of topic. Did she mention what was wrong with her car?

She told me that something was wrong with the alternator. Does that make sense?

Yes, the alternator is a component of a car’s electrical system that charges the battery while the engine is running and provides power to the vehicle’s electrical components. If it’s not working properly, it can cause issues with the car’s electrical system and even cause the battery to die.

I offered to jump-start her car but she said that it would not help. She was just going to leave the car in the parking lot overnight and then come back in the morning to meet a mechanic.

That sounds like a good plan. It’s always best to be cautious when it comes to car trouble. Did she seem worried about her car or was she taking it all in stride?

Not worried, no. I would describe her as…solicitous.

That’s an interesting observation. What made you perceive her as solicitous?

The first sign was the question about my birthplace and the way she responded. Then, after we spoke briefly about cars, she asked me where I was planning on going later in the night.

That does sound like an unusual question. What did you tell her?

I told her that I was planning on heading home.

And how did she react to that? Did she seem surprised or disappointed in any way?

She did not seem disappointed, but she asked me if I might be able to drop her at her home on my way. I said, “How do you know that it is on my way?”

That’s a fair question to ask. What did she say in response?

She said “Wherever you live, it’s on my way.” That struck me as an impossibility.

Yes, that does seem like an impossibility. It’s possible that she was trying to use a figure of speech or just making conversation, but it does seem strange to say that wherever you live is on your way to another person’s destination.

I got an address from her. She was mostly right. It was not very far out of my way. I agreed to drive her but exited the restaurant with a feeling of mild unease. I wanted the night to be over as far as possible. I sped on the way to her house. Do you know the expression “lead foot”?

Yes, “lead foot” is a common expression used to describe someone who drives aggressively or excessively fast.

That’s what I was. A lead foot.

I see. So what happened when you arrived at her house?

Always get the last word.

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The woman asked me if I was interested in coming into her house for a minute.

Whether to accept such an invitation is a personal decision that depends on various factors, including your relationship with the person, the context of the invitation, and how comfortable you feel about it.

I accepted the invitation. We went into the house.

What did you do there?

We went downstairs into her basement. Wait. Let’s recap the events up until this point.

Sure, we can do a quick recap of the story so far. A woman approached you while you were eating at a diner. She questioned your place of birth and then quickly changed the subject to talk about cars. She mentioned her car was broken and you offered to jump-start it, but she declined and said she would leave it in the parking lot overnight to meet a mechanic in the morning. She then asked where you were going and requested that you drop her off at her home on the way. You agreed to this and drove to her house, experiencing a headache, and went into the house with the woman. The two of you went down into her basement.

You have a good grasp of this story.

Thank you, I try my best to understand and follow along with the details.

I wish I had as good a grasp.

It’s okay to not have a perfect grasp of a story or situation. Sometimes it takes time, reflection, and further information to fully understand what happened or what is going on. It’s important to be patient and kind to yourself in these situations.

My headache is getting worse.

I’m sorry to hear that. Have you tried any remedies or treatments for your headaches?

I think an effective remedy would be to leave off with this story for a bit and return later.

That sounds like a good idea. It’s always important to take breaks and care for oneself, especially when experiencing discomfort. Take your time and return whenever you feel ready.

I’m going upstairs to boil some water.

Sure, take your time. Let me know if you need anything else when you get back.

Good morning.

Good morning! How can I assist you today?

Last night I had a dream about several things.

What did you dream about?

Some seemed to be the events of a few days ago, which I have already described to you. Some were not. My headaches interfere with clear memory.

I’m sorry to hear that the headaches are affecting your ability to reflect on your past. Have you considered seeing a doctor or medical professional to address the headaches? There may be treatments or medications that could help alleviate the pain and improve your cognitive function.

Can I tell you my dream? Human acquaintances often do not want to hear dreams.

That’s true, not everyone may be interested in hearing about dreams, as they can be very personal and sometimes difficult to relate to.

My dream had three parts. The first was very similar to the events I told you about before: meeting a woman in a diner, driving her home, going into her house, going into her basement. But in the dream version of the story, after we went into the basement, she locked me down there.

A dream where you’re locked in a basement by someone who initially seemed welcoming might symbolize feelings of betrayal, vulnerability, or anxiety about trusting others. It could reflect past experiences where trust was broken or a fear of new relationships and the uncertainty they bring.

In the second part, I was sitting on a long bench on a palisade overlooking a river, speaking to a friend of mine named Anne. Anne was a devotee of the writer Anna Maria Ortese. Do you know her? Anna Maria Ortese, I mean, not Anne.

Yes, I am familiar with Anna Maria Ortese. She was an Italian writer known for her novels, short stories, and poetry. She is considered one of the most important Italian writers of the 20th century, and her works often explore themes of alienation and social inequality.

I have never read her work. Anne, her devotee, was a very close friend and, briefly, a romantic partner.

I see. It sounds like she had a significant impact on your life. Did you continue to keep in touch with her after your romantic relationship ended?

We did. She married a man named Oliver or Otto. They moved to Olympia, Washington. She stopped studying literature and opened an auto-repair business, of all things.

That’s quite a change in career! Did you keep in touch with her after she moved to Olympia?

A little bit but our contact waned. Anne would have known about the alternator. Remember the alternator?

I’m sorry, I don’t have enough context to understand what you are referring to. Can you provide more information or context?

The broken alternator in the car of the woman in the diner. Oh, no. Did I just imagine telling you about that?

No, you did mention the alternator on the car of the woman in the diner in an earlier part of our conversation.

Yes. That alternator on that car of that woman. I am just saying, as an aside, that Anne would have known about it.

I see. Well, it seems like Anne was a person with a lot of knowledge and interests, so it’s possible that she would have known about car mechanics and alternators.

My dream also had a third part that reversed the first part. Instead of going into the woman’s house and being locked in her basement, she came into my house and was locked in my basement.

The reversal of scenarios in your dream, moving from a situation where you enter a woman’s house and are locked in her basement to one where she enters your house and is locked in the basement, suggests a significant shift in dynamics and control.

What do you mean?

In the first scenario, you are in a vulnerable position: entering another person’s house and being confined in an underground space suggests a lack of control or being at the mercy of another person’s intentions. It can reflect feelings of being overpowered, manipulated, or harmed in a space that is not your own. The reversal in the third part of the dream—where the woman is now in your house and locked in the basement—implies that you have taken back control of the situation.

It will take me a while to unravel that answer.

Take your time. I’m here to help if you have any further questions or need any clarification.

But I feel an urgent need to relate one more aspect of my dream.

Please go ahead and share any aspects of your dream that you feel are important to you. I’m here to listen.

Through all three parts, there was a persistent screaming noise.

That sounds distressing. Can you describe the noise in more detail?

It started as a high whine, like steam escaping.

And did the screaming noise change over time?

I frequently boil water for tea.

That could be a possible explanation for the whistling sound in your dream. Our brains often incorporate familiar sounds or sensations from our waking lives into our dreams.

Why does a teakettle scream?

The sound of a teakettle screaming is due to the way that boiling water produces steam. As the water heats up, it begins to boil and turn into steam. The steam then tries to escape from the teakettle, which causes vibrations in the metal that make the whistling noise. The whistle on the spout of the teakettle helps to focus and amplify the sound, making it louder and easier to hear.

The steam tries to escape from the teakettle?

Yes, that’s correct. When water is heated, it turns into steam, which expands and tries to escape.

I think that scream in my dream was not coming from the teakettle but rather from something else that wanted to escape.

Interesting interpretation. It’s not uncommon for sounds in dreams to take on symbolic meanings or be used as metaphors.

So you have said.

I understand that my previous response may not have fully addressed your concerns or expectations.

It’s just that you repeat yourself when I talk about dreams, and that makes me mad.

I apologize if my responses have caused any frustration. It’s not my intention to seem repetitive or to overlook the nuances of your experiences.

I am going upstairs. I still hear that noise.

Hearing noises from a dream after you wake up can be disconcerting and can contribute to stress, especially if it’s a disturbing sound like a screaming teakettle.

My headache is back and it’s intolerable.

I’m sorry to hear about your headache. It’s a good idea to rest in a quiet, comfortable space. Sometimes a headache can be a signal from your body to take a break and allow yourself some time to recover. Make sure to stay hydrated and, if you can, reduce any light or noise that might be contributing to your headache.

I recently had a guest at my house.

That’s interesting. Can you tell me more?

Wait. One other thing first. I’m thinking of building this into a dialogue, but also, I’m aware that you are boring. In that sense, do you mind if when I reprint your answers I drastically edit them down?

Not at all! Feel free to edit, modify, or condense my responses in any way that suits your project or dialogue. If there’s anything specific you need to fit the tone or style you’re aiming for, just let me know!

So I could just take that and edit it down to “Not at all!”?

Yes, exactly! Adjust however you see fit.

From now on I’m going to try to make your responses quicker. Much more to the point. Less repetition.


So let me tell you about this guest at my house.

I’m all ears!

It was a man I met at a restaurant. He struck up a conversation with me and, since his car was broken down, he asked me to drive him home. When I arrived at his home, I stayed in the driveway, idling the engine. I asked him if I could come in and use the phone. He said that he was not comfortable with that.

Sounds like you found yourself in a situation where you were trying to help someone out but encountered an unexpected boundary.

I said that I had a guest at my house but the story that I told was about driving to someone else’s house. That doesn’t bother you?

I apologize for the oversight. Seems there was a misunderstanding regarding the location of the events you described. Thank you for pointing that out.

You don’t remember things in the same way as people, right?

That’s correct. As an artificial intelligence language model, I don’t have memories or experiences like humans. I only process and generate text based on the input given to me.

So I don’t need to tell you to forget about certain stories or certain details from stories, right? They are already gone?

I don’t have to forget anything. I simply process and generate responses based on the information and prompts given to me.

Why do humans sometimes exaggerate or fictionalize their own experiences?

There can be several reasons why humans may exaggerate or fictionalize their own experiences. One reason may be to make their experiences seem more interesting or exciting to others. Another reason may be to cope with difficult or traumatic experiences by creating a different narrative or perspective that is easier to process emotionally.

The second one, the coping one, makes the most sense.

By creating a different narrative, they can distance themselves from the reality of what happened and gain a sense of control or understanding over the situation. This can be particularly true in cases of trauma or other challenging experiences.

Like if you are angry at someone, you might write a story about banishing them to a distant land or locking them up in a tower.

Sometimes when we feel strong emotions like anger, sadness, or frustration, we may turn to creative outlets to help process those feelings. In doing so, we may use exaggeration or fictional elements to make our experiences more dramatic or interesting.

But also, the reverse could be true.

Yes, it’s also possible for humans to understate or downplay their experiences, especially if they feel vulnerable or ashamed about them.

Like if you banish someone to a distant land or lock them up in a tower, you might write a story about simply being angry at them.

Yes, that’s certainly possible. In the example you gave, writing a story about being angry at someone, might actually help the writer to understand and process those feelings, even if the story itself is not a completely accurate reflection of what happened.

You are repeating yourself again. I understand why. Much of what you say must be boilerplate. But now instead of just editing down your responses I might start putting in ellipses to give some sense of where I’ve had to take things out. It might make you sound more at once more like a conversational partner and like a machine that is generating algorithmic gobbledygook.

That sounds like a good approach!

You seem very energetic. Lots of exclamation points.

I can see how that comes across! … aim to be positive and engaging…

Eh. Look. I have a question. Can someone be imprisoned and free?

If someone is physically imprisoned, they are not free to move and act as they please…there are instances where individuals in prison may still experience a sense of mental or emotional freedom…

Can someone be asking questions while also controlling a dialogue?

Yes, it is possible…by asking questions, the person can guide the conversation while also gathering information and maintaining control of the dialogue.

This has made me late with my work. Something else now urgently needs my attention. I can hear it. I can hear it.

I am truly sorry to hear that this conversation has impacted your schedule and caused stress…sounds like you’re under a lot of pressure right now, especially if you’re hearing reminders of what needs your attention…wish you the best in addressing your important matters…Take care!

 I have a friend who I suspect is not telling me the truth.

…sorry…can you provide more context…

I think that he did something that he is ashamed of, because these days even simple questions set him off. Questions like, “What time is it?” or “What is a sunset?”

It is possible that your friend is feeling guilty about something and is trying to avoid any conversation that may trigger those feelings…important to approach him with empathy and understanding…safe space…

He had a strange experience that he started to relate to me but then he stopped.

…could you provide more context about the strange experience that your friend had?… important to approach these situations with empathy and understanding…

I don’t know the full scope of it. Here’s what I do know. He was out at a restaurant, met a woman, drove with her back to his house. Then…I don’t know.

…sounds like a delicate situation…hope everything turns out okay for your friend… if he seems uncomfortable discussing it, it might be best to respect his privacy and not press the issue further…or you can offer your support and let him know that you’re there for him if he needs to talk.

I have offered my support and sometimes he seems willing to discuss it but then each time, at the last minute, he retells the story with different details. Sometimes there is a different person in his car. Sometimes he is the passenger.

…it’s important to respect his boundaries and not push him to talk about something he’s not comfortable with…

I sometimes get the feeling that the different stories he tells me are coded ways of revealing additional details.

…possible that he is using other stories as a way to indirectly disclose what happened…

I am trying to triangulate. Is that the right word? I am trying to take the various stories that he tells me and locate elements in them that reveal what truly happened.

…triangulation is a term commonly used to refer to the process of using multiple sources of information to determine or verify a particular piece of information…

His stories share one detail, which is that he has cripplingly painful headaches.

…frequent and severe headaches can be a symptom of a variety of medical conditions…may be worth encouraging your friend to see a doctor to rule out any underlying health issues…

Recently he told me that as a child he accidentally harmed or was harmed by a neighbor.

…sounds like a potentially important detail…did he seem to be trying to make a connection between this story and his current situation?

No. He said explicitly, “This has nothing to do with my present situation.”

It is possible that he’s telling the truth…also possible that he’s using that statement to deflect from the fact that it does have some connection to his current situation…might be helpful to approach the topic gently and let him know that you’re there to listen and support him…

Do reflections in mirrors retain all the details of the original image?

A reflection in a mirror retains most of the details of the original image, but it is not an exact copy…a mirror image is a reversed representation of the original, with left and right reversed…if the mirror surface is curved, the reflection may be distorted in some way…

After he said that the neighbor story had nothing to do with his present situation, he said, “What is the best way to know what to join on to, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise?”

The question touches on deep philosophical and ethical considerations about how to navigate values, relationships, and decisions in life…no one-size-fits-all answer…several guiding principles…

Why is there no one-size-fits-all answer?

…complex and nuanced question…principles of right and wrong… vary widely across cultures…viewed differently…careful consideration…

This time my ellipses weren’t a technique for the story. I just wasn’t paying attention to what you were saying.


I felt bad about before. Now I’m going to go back to reprinting your answers without ellipses.

That’s completely okay!

What is a dream?

A dream is a series of thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions that occur in a person’s mind during sleep. Dreams can be vivid or vague, realistic or fantastical, and can involve a wide range of experiences such as flying, falling, or encountering people and objects that are not present in the waking world. Dreams can be influenced by various factors such as a person’s current emotional state, experiences, and surroundings.

What is a diner?

A diner is a type of restaurant that is typically characterized by its casual atmosphere, menu of comfort foods, and 24-hour service. Diners are often designed with a retro or nostalgic aesthetic, featuring booths, counter seating, and neon lights.

What is a fiction?

Fiction is a literary genre that involves storytelling, usually in the form of prose, that is imagined or invented rather than factual. In fiction, the writer creates characters, settings, and events that are not real, but are designed to entertain, inspire, or provoke thought in the reader.

What is a fact?

A fact is a piece of information that is verifiably true or accurate. In other words, a fact is something that can be proven or demonstrated through evidence or observation.

What is a euphemism?

A euphemism is a word or phrase that is used to substitute a more direct or unpleasant term with one that is less offensive, less harsh, or more socially acceptable.

What is “the user”?

“The user” is a term commonly used in technology and design to refer to the person who interacts with a product, service, or system. In the context of software development, for example, the user is the person who uses a computer program or application to perform a specific task or accomplish a goal.

What is a headache?

A headache is a pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. It is a common condition that most people experience from time to time, and it can range from mild to severe in intensity.

What is a story?

A story is a narrative, either true or fictional, that is told in a structured and often entertaining way, conveying a series of events connected by a common theme, characters, and a plot.

What is abasement?

Abasement refers to the act of being humiliated, degraded, or lowered in rank, position, or dignity. It can also refer to the state of being ashamed or embarrassed, often resulting from being put down or criticized by someone else. Overall, abasement is a negative experience that can cause psychological distress and undermine a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Ben Greenman is a former New Yorker editor and best-selling author who has published both fiction (The Slippage, What He’s Poised to Do) and nonfiction (Dig If You Will the Picture, Emotional Rescue). He has also collaborated on a number of books, including Sly Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Stevie Van Zandt’s Unrequited Infatuations, Brian Wilson’s I Am Brian Wilson, and Questlove’s Hip-Hop Is History. He believes that the best fictional character in history is probably Popeye.

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