Douglas Adams’ Salmon of Doubt on Beatles, Bach, Wodehouse, technology, Apple, atheism and hurling the chairs around.

Douglas Adams died young. Aged 49, in 2001.

But in his short life he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enough for a meaningful life.

The Salmon of Doubt bundles the unpublished work he left on his Mac when he died.

When I read about this book first, it promised to be the unfinished sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But it is not. At best a very very little bit.

The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy

The first number of stories are articles Adams wrote for different newspapers and magazines. After 2 thrids into it, the book finally gets to the proposed draft for the 6th sequel of the Hitchhikers Guide. But this part is prefaced with a remark by Adams saying a lot of the material in The Salmon does not work and could be yanked out.
Most of the stories following are unfinished Dirk Gently chapters. Dirk Gently is a bizar detective novel series created by Adams. A different topic than the Hitchhiker’s Guide, very amusing though.

The book starts right off with an introduction by Terry Jones (Monty Python, yes that Terry Jones).

“You are, without doubt, holding in your hands one of the best-introduced books in the English language. We hope you enjoy the Introduction to the New Edition that follows this Introduction to it and continue to read on even into the book itself. “

He is referring to the fact this is the third introduction in sequence to the new edition of the book.

“But with this handsome volume, I hope that Douglas’s work has finally achieved the full complement of Introductions that it deserves. Perhaps future editions might even boast a Foreword and a Foreword to the Foreword, so as to keep Douglas’s wonderful writing to the forefront of properly prefaced literature. Please enjoy this book and, when you have finished it, do not leave it on the train.”

The books has gathered published and unpublished articles and parts of books that are very entertaining but also provide a peak into the mind of the man who created The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, giving the number 42 its special meaning.
He talks about his love for The Beatles.

“It bewildered me that no one else could hear it: impossible harmonies and part playing you had never heard in pop songs before. The Beatles were obviously just putting all this stuff in for some secret fun of their own, and it seemed exciting to me that people could have fun in that way.”

To Adams the English writer P.G. Wodehouse is just as important to English literature as Milton, Shakespeare and Keats.

PG. Wodehouse

“Shakespeare? Milton? Keats? How can I possibly mention the author of Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin and Pigs Have Wings in the same breath as these men? He’s just not serious! He doesn’t need to be serious.”

And Bach.

“The familiarity of the Brandenburgs should not blind us to their magnitude. I’m convinced that Bach is the greatest genius who ever walked among us, and the Brandenburgs are what he wrote when he was happy.”

Technology becomes almost an obsession for Adams. He can be real nerdy, is a gadget freak and a life long Apple adept. He writes about the limitations of the technology at that time and the improvements he wants to see. Some are quite predictive. He fulminates about how the different technologies on his Mac do not integrate, and how he wants to see improvements.

“What I want to be able to do is this:

– Turn on the machine.
– Work.
– Have a bit of fun provided I’ve done enough of 2, which is rarely, but that’s another issue.”

(That latter refers to his reputation of being unable to deliver in time and missing deadlines. “I love declines, I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” But that’s another issue.)

“What I’m talking about is the death of the “application.” I don’t mean just when they “unexpectedly” quit, I mean it’s time we simply got rid of them.”

He wants his problem of having different devices and still share everything he does on any device. Today IT nerds will start yelling CLOUD immediately before he could have finished his sentence.

“All I want to do is print from my portable. (Poor baby.) That isn’t all I want, in fact. I want to be able regularly to transfer my address book and diary stacks backward and forward between my portable and my IIx. And all my current half-finished chapters. And anything else I’m tinkering with, which is the reason why my half-finished chapters are half-finished. In other words, I want my portable to appear on the desktop of my IIx.”

He wants to get rid of “technology”. His definition of technology is interesting.

“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. How do you recognize something that is still technology? A good clue is if it comes with a manual.”

The world changes rapidly and Adams describes the need for a vision on what the world will look like in the no so far future, as well as our inability to do so. His reasoning precedes the scientific works of Daniel GilbertStumbling On Happiness – who writes about his scientific findings in similar terms.

“Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game. But increasingly it’s a game we all have to play because the world is changing so fast and we need to have some sort of idea of what the future’s actually going to be like because we are going to have to live there, probably next week.”

“We were wrong about trains, we were wrong about planes, we were wrong about radio, we were wrong about phones, we were wrong about . . . well, for a voluminous list of the things we have been wrong about”

Relating the inability to predict the future to the application of technology, we all have heard some of the horrible technology predictions, for example Worst Tech Predictions).

The one Douglas Adams mentions I had not heard yet, but is equally amusing. Followed by a fabulous prediction from himself.

“One such that I spotted recently was a statement made in February by a Mr. Wayne Leuck, vice-president of engineering at USWest, the American phone company. Arguing against the deployment of high-speed wireless data connections, he said, “Granted, you could use it in your car going sixty miles an hour, but I don’t think too many people are going to be doing that.” Just watch. That’s a statement that will come back to haunt him. Satellite navigation. Wireless Internet. As soon as we start mapping physical location back into shared information space, we will trigger yet another explosive growth in Internet applications. At least—that’s what I predict. I could, of course, be wildly wrong.”

Adams defines himself as an radical Atheist. And he is very serious about this.

“So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.”

He has given this a lot of thought and the chapter on the topic in this book is a logical flow of reasoning that brings Adams to the conclusion that there is no real god, but there is an artificial god.
Adams argues (deduces) that god is what defines life.

“So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion.”

He links his view on god to his insight in technology and computers. He argues that the complexity of life is not something specific to life itself, but that this can be seen in other forms as well, such as computer programs.

“The computer forms a third age of perspective, because suddenly it enables us to see how life works. Now, that is an extraordinarily important point because it becomes self-evident that life, that all forms of complexity, do not flow downward, they flow upward, and there’s a whole grammar that anybody who is used to using computers is now familiar with, which means that evolution is no longer a particular thing, because anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer—and by enormously complex phenomena”

Adams of course does not give references to his information source, but Mandelbrot and others have shown (read James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science) that from very simple mathematics, extremely complex phenomena emerge.

It is also unclear of Adams may have been aware of the work of Stephen Wolfram, who published his bible A New Kind of Science on this topic, in 2002, one year after Adams’ death. (Just noticed that, interestingly, both Gleick and Wolfram books refer to the field they  describe in their books as a new science. I am not sure either of them is right in that respect.)

And since there is no longer a God needed to explain the origin of the complexity of life, God in Adams’ definition becomes the explanation of the complexity itself.

“I suspect that as we move farther and farther into the field of digital or artificial life, we will find more and more unexpected properties begin
to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual God, there is an artificial God, and we should probably bear that in mind.”

Adams realizes his vulnerable position as an atheist and as a person discussing the existence or even necessity of god. His friend Richard Dawkins was heavily criticized at the time about his opinions on religion (this was years before The God Delusion). And he finds this incomprehensible.

“So we are used to not challenging religious ideas, but it’s very interesting how much of a furor Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally, there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.”

Hence he ends his reasoning on this typic in typical Douglas Adams style.

“That is my debating point, and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!”

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