Grab your towel and don’t panic, boys and girls: 28 years
ago today, a British radio station set loose upon the world perhaps the
all-time funniest science-fiction franchise. On March 8, 1978, BBC Radio 4 broadcast
the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s
Guide to the Galaxy radio series.
While it’s technically possible that you haven’t heard of Hitchhiker’s, that would seem unlikely,
since the original radio series spawned four radio sequels, a BBC television miniseries,
a collection of novels, a horde of stage plays, and a major motion picture—to
say nothing of inaugurating some classic geek culture references.
Take, for example, the aforementioned “towel
joke.” Hitchhiker’s author
Douglas Adams inserted into the radio play’s seventh episode (called Fit the Seventh) the notion that an
astronomically savvy person would not only own a towel, but in fact always know
where his or her towel is (preferably, on his or her person). This was actually
an inside joke about Adams’ own vacation in Greece, during which he could never
find his towel when it came time to swim or sunbathe.
For whatever reason, the joke struck a chord with the public
and became one of the hallmarks of Hitchhiker’s
fandom—so much so that Towel
Day, May 25, has become an informally recognized international holiday to
commemorate the life and works of Douglas Adams.
Well, it’s funnier the way Adams tells it.
Arguably, the most famous (or infamous?) and most beloved
(by geeks, anyway) Hitchhiker’s
reference is 42. In his own hilariously Byzantine style, Adams
“proved” that 42 is the answer to
the meaning of life, the universe and everything, at least as far as the
ultimate sentient artificial intelligences are concerned, despite the fact that
the inadequacies of the human race and the construction of a hyperspace bypass
skewed their calculations.
Again, it’s funnier the way Adams tells it.
In any case, nods to the 42 joke have found their way into
dozens of video games and software programs, often hidden as Easter eggs for
unknowing geeks to delightfully discover. Case in point: A venerable text
editor preferred by hackers, Linux lovers, and various old-school coders has a
particularly explicit Hitchhiker’s-themed
WHICH CODER-FAVORITE TEXT EDITOR CONTAINS A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY EASTER
Which venerable text editor preferred by hackers, Linux lovers,
and various old-school coders sports a particularly explicit Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-themed
Easter egg that references the sci-fi comedy series’ infamous 42
The illustrious Vim text
editor, notoriously difficult to use but also notoriously efficient and
popular in the hands of high-level programmers, is the application in question.
Entering the command :help 42 within Vim
returns the following quote:
“What is the meaning of life, the universe and
everything? *42* Douglas Adams, the only person who knew what this question
really was about is now dead, unfortunately. So now you might wonder what the
meaning of death is. . .”
Oblique, to be sure. But the odds of any coder using Vim not
being a Hitchhiker’s fan would be,
difficult to calculate. Of course, you don’t have to be a coder to enjoy a
42-based inside joke.
Simply go to any Google search box, and type the following
phrase (in all lowercase letters): what
is the answer to life the universe and everything? The Google Calculator
will return this
result to your query: the answer to
life the universe and everything = 42.
You’ll also get standard Google results below the calculator
output—almost all of which will be direct references to Hitchhiker’s, which should help convince all you skeptics out there
just how well-known this “ultimate answer” really is. Trying the same
thing with MSN Search will produce almost precisely the same results, including
the answer = 42 output from the
Naturally, the hidden Hitchhiker’s
references don’t stop there; such varied technical resources as the TIFF image
file format to the Planes of Existence chat-talker program to more video games
than are reasonable to list all contain explicit nods to Douglas Adams’ beloved
franchise. (Wikipedia, as usual, sports an
extensive list.) That, my friends, is the definition of don’t-panic-worthy
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The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.
This week’s quibble comes from the February 15 edition of
Geek Trivia, “After-the-fact
or fiction.” TechRepublic member Andrew
Shafer pointed out a key post-public-perception product that I forgot to
“Another great example of a company ‘retroactively’
creating a product is the red Swingline stapler. After [the movie] Office Space showed the famous stapler
(really a painted prop), Swingline had so many demands for a red stapler that [it]
now produces one.”
Yes, dear readers, that was a truly odious omission on my
part. Thanks for the product placement, and keep those quibbles coming!
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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.