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May 07, 2005

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Only a week late, my reactions to the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

(Note that this will be a New York Times Review of Books-style review, i.e., I won't actually write too much about the title I'm reviewing, but rather use the review as an excuse to peddle my own thoughts on the creator, the subject matter, and whatever else suits my fancy.)

Hitchhiker's is kind of like the Macintosh for me -- I was an early adopter and a long-time fan, but when it started to go downhill, I drifted away without ever losing my admiration for its creator. Later, when it came back, I was happy to readopt it. Of course, this means I have no credibility with true fans in either domain.

I'm happy to say that I found Hitchhiker's on my own and by accident. It was 1980 and I discovered it, in its original US hardback edition, while browsing through the science fiction section of Bookworks in Pacific Grove, CA. I read the opening paragraphs:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has -- or rather had -- a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

How could anyone read those paragraphs and not want to keep going? With that, I was hooked.

Years passed. There were more books. I loved The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The third, fourth, and fifth books in the "trilogy" didn't do much for me, but at the same time, they didn't diminish my admiration for the original concept, nor for the author.

In 1995, I think (what I wouldn't give to have my online appointment book reach back that far or farther), two of my colleagues from Virtus and I visited the UK to meet with various firms in the UK 3D graphics community. While there, we arranged to have dinner with Douglas Adams and his business partner, Robbie Stamp. Douglas and Robbie were on the verge of starting The Digital Village (TDV), a firm basically designed as a support structure to bring Douglas' ideas to life. We all got along wonderfully, though the only business that ever came from it was Virtus contributing certain code to their game, Starship Titanic.

But that first dinner led to more meetings. I was welcomed at TDV whenever I was in London, and enjoyed the company of everyone I met there -- in fact, I remain friends to this day with Richard Harris, Douglas' then-chief technical officer and one of the smarter people I've ever known.

As for Douglas himself, I can say that he was, as one would expect, incredibly clever and terribly funny. But just as importantly, he was always gracious and welcoming in a way that belied his status -- he wasn't just a celebrity, he was a cult icon. When we discussed ideas, he listened as intently to mine as I did to his, which I think wasn't politeness on his part but rather a genuine interest in what others had to say.

When Douglas died, it was sudden and shocking. Most of all, it was sadly ironic on many levels. He died of a heart attack while exercising. He moved to California to make his movie but didn't live to see it happen.

Oh, right, the movie. Yes. Actually, I thought it was wonderful. Although there were moments that could have been handled better, in general, it did a wonderful job of conveying the flavor of Hitchhiker's if not all the detail. I was pleasantly surprised by most of the performances, especially that of Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox -- he stole every scene he was in, which Zaphod should do, given who he is. He didn't play Zaphod quite like the character in the books -- he played him far more broadly, and goofily, but it really worked for me. When I took my sons to see the movie a second time, all it took was seeing him appear on screen to make us start laughing. And like Richard Harris (not-the-movie-review here), I thought the Magrathean "factory floor" scene was a movie stealer.

I hope Douglas would be proud of this film. I think he would. As Richard notes:

Douglas himself was a past master of shuffling the premises, structure and content of his material to suit each new medium: the book is not the radio show is not the TV series and neither is nor should be the movie.
Finally, to the filmmakers, for your dedication to Douglas at the end, and for the visual tribute that preceded it, bless you.

May 01, 2005

Fungible Oil

This from an Economist story on oil is so well written and so succinctly put that I have to repeat it here:

Thanks to the spectacular rise of futures trading, oil has become a fungible global commodity. The conventional notion that stakes in oil fields add up to energy security no longer holds up: if there is an oil shock, then the market price of every barrel of oil in the world will shoot up past $100 a barrel. [I]n America... Congress is trying to boost "energy independence". It is now considering an energy bill that would allow oil drilling in pristine parts of Alaska and would dole out billions in subsidies for the oil and gas business. This is mad. America has so little oil, and guzzles so much, that it will never again be energy-independent while relying on oil. America's best hopes for energy security lie in the resilience of global oil markets, in conservation and in alternative energy sources.
Exactly. We can drill in ANWR all we want, but the companies who find oil there will still sell it to the highest bidder. Drilling in ANWR -- or anywhere else in the US, for that matter -- won't make us any more independent when it comes to energy.