The Hitchhiker Legacy

Having spent a good many years working with my friend and late primate, Douglas Adams, I maintain a small and irregular archive of stuff related – occasionally tenuously – to Douglas’ life and work. This is it, and any relationship to objective reality is purely coincidental and probably unintentional.

Ancestral AI…

Quarter of a century ago, I was CTO of the team who created the conversation engine for our game, Starship Titanic. It used what was, for the time, a largish language model. Of our own design, it included run-time learning to adapt to the input sentiment of the user, and we ended up with a CODiE award and a BAFTA nomination for it. It was therefore something of a spiritual forebear of ChatGPT, but we were limited in how far we could take its development by the need to ‘weld bits to atoms’ (as Nick Negroponte put it) to ship a game on CD. We’d love to have continued its development as an ever-expanding, self-learning front-end to, but the dotcom crash intervened, forcefully.

So I reckon that left me with a half-decent understanding of both the strengths and limitations of the LLM approach, as well as an utter contempt for the so-called chatbots that have emerged since. With ChatGPT, my appreciation of the really good stuff it can do far outweighs my frustration at the things it doesn’t do so well (but we’ve got answers for some of those), but I just combined several of my interests and asked ChatGPT to write a poem praising Scottish independence, in the style of William McGonagall. This is what it came up with, and I’m awestruck:

Oh Scotland, land of rolling hills and streams,

With rich history and vibrant cultural themes,

For centuries you’ve been part of a greater scheme,

But now ’tis time to let your independence gleam.

The Union Jack may wave, but it brings you no joy,

For Westminster rule has brought you nothing but annoyance and ploy.

Your natural resources and hard-working people,

Deserve a government that listens, not one that’s steeple.

Your voice has been silenced, your choices controlled,

But now ’tis time to break free from the hold,

And make a stand for what is rightfully yours,

With a government that truly represents your cause.

So rise up, brave Scots, and make your voice heard,

Let independence be the word that flies like a bird,

From Edinburgh to the Highlands, from coast to coast,

Scotland shall stand tall and proudly boast.

With a government of your own, you’ll prosper and thrive,

No longer bound by laws that keep you captive and deprived,

So let the world hear your battle cry,

For Scottish independence and the right to rule, shall never die!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Me: Forty Years and Counting…

1978. Easter hols from university. I was wandering through my mum’s kitchen – being a student, I was, as usual, in search of anything that could be eaten without dire consequences. I was also, just as usually, ignoring the Radio 4 she always had on in the background.  Except that, this time, the sonorous notes of The Sorceror rang out across the kitchen as I slouched past. That stopped me: as a West Coast hippy misplaced in time and space by a decade and a few thousand miles (here I cite my cowboy boots, bell-bottom flares and a fine collection of Jefferson Airplane albums), anything from The Eagles was OK by me. But on Radio Four? 

Continue reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Me: Forty Years and Counting…

Talking to the Studios

There’s an hilarious letter doing the rounds at the moment, purportedly from Stanley Kubrick to MGM. Unfortunately, it’s a fake. But, if you want a real example of how to write to a studio executive, here’s a copy of a fax that Douglas Adams sent to David Vogel of Sony, at a particularly fraught time during our negotiations over the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie. I can personally attest to the veracity of this piece.

This, by the way, is published in The Salmon of Doubt, the final compendium of Douglas’ unfinished works, half-works, nearly-works and random musings.

Continue reading Talking to the Studios

The Fifth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture

“Wildlife Management in East Africa – Is There a Future?” by Dr Richard Leakey

Date: Thursday 15 March 2007, 7:30pm
Venue: The Royal Geographic Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Price: £12.00 – You’ll find more information and ticket information here. Continue reading The Fifth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture

The Fourth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture

“Is the Human an Endangered Species?” by Professor Robert Winston

Date: Thursday 23 March 2006, 7:30pm
Venue: The Royal Geographic Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Price: £10.00 – Purchase tickets here.

Save the Rhino International and the Environmental Investigation Agency are co-hosting the Fourth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture with a talk by Professor Robert Winston, on Thursday 23 March at the Royal Geographic Society in London SW7. In this talk, he will combine some of the apparently threatening aspects of technology and the trust, or lack of it, in science.

Not the Movie Review

 This was to have been my considered, thoughtful and detailed review of the new movie of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Easy”, thought I – I’ve been a fan of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy since its original 1978 broadcast on steam radio, followed it through its incarnations as an increasingly misnamed trilogy of books, a stage play, the BBC TV series, (with the charming production values of its cardboard and tin foil sets) and, finally, into my own personal involvement as the CTO of Douglas’ company, where I spent the latter half of the nineties and the first couple of years of the millennium immersed in the philosophy, humour, science, ideas and company of Douglas Adams and his works.

Easy then to figure that all of that should thoroughly qualify me to write about this, the decades-longed-for movie. How wrong I was. I’m sitting here, several days post-Premiere. I’ve almost recovered from the subsequent evening of Pan-Galactic Gargleblasters and am at something of a loss about what to write. In fact, I’ve now come to the conclusion that prior experience thoroughly disqualifies me from actually reviewing it. So here it isn’t.

Continue reading Not the Movie Review

Now Ain’t That Something…

Last night, and a mere twenty years after its original release, the Twentieth Anniversary edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy took the impressively heavy 2005 BAFTA Interactive award for Online Entertainment. For a computer game – a genre reknowned for having a shelf life of weeks rather than years, this is a unique achievement. It’s also a tribute to the principle that intelligent and engaging entertainment is timeless, no matter what the medium, and to the imagination, wit and humour of its authors. So congratulations are very much in order to the memory of Douglas Adams, to Steve Meretzky and to the BBC, Sean Sollé, Shimon Young and Rod Lord, who between them created the Twentieth Anniversary edition. The award itself is lovingly photographed here in the exotic surroundings of a Holborn Pizza restaurant, whose staff created an impromptu homage to the occasion by taking 7.5 million years to serve dinner.

Last Chance to See… …Just a bit more

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The Third Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture, in celebration of the life and universe of Douglas Adams.

Date: Thursday 10 March 2005
Venue: The Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London W1
Time: Lecture begins at 7.30pm
Speaker: Mark Carwardine
Price: £20 for main auditorium with a drink beforehand £12 for gallery seating without a drink

For information including how to buy tickets please see

Lecture synopsis: Zoologist Mark Carwardine (co-author of Last Chance to See with Douglas Adams) spends more than half the year travelling the world in search of wildlife and exploring wild places.

In this highly entertaining lecture Mark describes some of his experiences and encounters with wild animals and even wilder people around the world – including some hilarious behind-the-scenes stories from Last Chance to See. And, inevitably, he has a thing or two to say about the state of the world.

The lecture will be followed by a fundraising auction, lots will include signed film memorabilia, VIP tickets to the film premier and signed copies of the Quintessential Phase: Mostly Harmless radio script.

BAFTA Interactive Awards 2005

The 2nd March 2005 sees the BAFTA Interactive Awards ceremony, in which the BBC’s Twentieth Anniversary presentation of the original Infocom Interactive Fiction game of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is nominated in the Online Entertainment section. Having been responsible for the simple original online presentation of the game and been a past BAFTA juror, I’m keeping various bits of anatomy crossed for its success. Here’s hoping…

If you’ve arrived here from the BBC site, there’s a potted history of the Infocom game here, which includes never before seen scans of some of Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky’s original notes and designs, photos taken during development of the game, the original ZIL code from the game development (of historical interest only unless you happen have a spare 1980s vintage DEC-10 computer lying around, but may contain some game spoilers) and extracts from various interviews that Steve has given about life, the game and working with Douglas.

Meretzky on Adams

In 1984, Steve Meretzky of Infocom collaborated with Douglas Adams to co-author one of the most successful and notoriously difficult computer games of all time – the interactive fiction of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In 1985, the game sold nearly half-a-million copies, making it a phenomenal success for the time, given the number of personal computers then in the world. This wasn’t long before graphic computer games took over, at which point companies like Infocom and Level 9, both of whom specialised in intelligent games of the imagination, went to the wall. It wasn’t really until we released Starship Titanic in 2000 that the art of the conversation engine as a user interface was significantly advanced over Infocom’s parser, itself derived from the original work by Crowther and Woods at MIT in the 1970s. I still fervently believe that a natural language interface is the future of interaction and that universal communication by e-mail and text messaging and the blogosphere represents a re-evolution of the word as a means of interaction. Returning hastily from that small contextual digression, here’s a compendium of Steve Meretzky’s thoughts on the original game, working with Douglas and the fate of the interactive fiction industry. Thanks to Steve for providing this and giving permission to publish it here.

What about Douglas Adams? Working with him was a good experience?

Working with Douglas was great. He had such a different perspective on things, and came up with puzzles and scenes that I’d never have thought of in a million years on my own – having the game lie to you, or using a parser failure as the words which fell through a wormhole in the universe and started an interstellar war, or having an object like “no tea”. On the other hand, the man is the world’s worst procrastinator! I had to practically camp out on his doorstep in England to get him to finish his stuff for the game.

How did you come to work with Douglas Adams?

What was he like? Douglas was an Infocom player and fan, and so when he and his agent and his publisher began discussing the subject of a computer game adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide, he was pretty adamant that it be with Infocom. Marc Blank suggested that I collaborate on the game with Douglas, partly due to fortunate timing (I had just completed Sorcerer), partly because many people had found Planetfall to be reminiscent of the humor of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and partly because I was the only implementor who was as tall as Douglas. The best way to describe Douglas is that he’s the ideal dinner companion. He can speak intelligently and with wit about almost any topic under the sun. Unfortunately, as a collaborator, he suffered from the fact that he was the world’s worst procrastinator! I had to practically camp out on his doorstep in England to get him to finish his stuff for the game. Otherwise, working with him was great. He had such a different perspective on things, and came up with puzzles and scenes that I’d never have thought of in a million years on my own – having the game lie to you, or using a parser failure as the words which fell through a wormhole in the universe and started an interstellar war, or having an object like “no tea”.

Continue reading Meretzky on Adams