Runaway Meme – a Pre-Internet Saga in Four Parts

HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy   :    http://mariopiperni.com/

The instant I came across the following story, I knew it needed a permanent home or risk having it “lost to history.” So here it is, a most delightful tale of the birth of a meme from E.A. Blair.  ~mario

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Prologue: Memes are, of course, those little bits of popular culture that seem to come out of nowhere, become all the rage, then recede to the back of the collective consciousness only to resurface from time to time – a non-audible earworm.  Some, are more enduring than others – LOLcats may never die, but, thankfully, goatse is all but gone.  Sometimes they seem to arise spontaneously from everywhere at once, and, like urban legends, few seem to have identifiable sources.  In his recent posting I Was Robbed by President Obama!, Mario lays claim to the “Romney Hood” meme, and he makes a good case for it.  Like him, I’m quite certain that I was the source of a meme as well, but all you have is my word for it.

Fit The First: Back in 1986, I was working for a small computer programming firm, and for most of our in-house production work, we used a computer language called FORTH.  One of the features of FORTH was that you could change the number base on the fly, so you could go from base 10 to binary to hex or even to odd things like base 7 or base 19 or even base 184.  In essence, you were only limited by the number of characters that could be used as digits.

Fit The Second: At the same time, the local PBS station was screening the BBC TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I watched avidly. As many people know, one of the focal points of the story, whether in the original radio show, the book or the television series is that the answer to the ultimate question is “42″, but nobody knew the question.  The question is finally revealed in the final episode of the shows or the end of the second book (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) when Arthur Dent’s Scrabble tiles spell out “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”

I pause while you calculate the result of 6×9.

Fit The Third: One of my co-workers had also read the book, but not seen the series, and we occasionally discussed it over work.  One day when I had an idle moment, I wondered if that equation would work out in another number base, so, I used FORTH to play around with it.  I knew it would have to be somewhere between 10 and sixteen;  I tried base 11; the answer was 4A, went on to base 12 and got 46 (closer!), but when I got to base 13, lo and behold, found out that when you multiplied six by nine in base 13, you did get 42!

Fit The Fourth: I mentioned this to my co-worker and a few friends who were fans of the book and frequent science fiction convention attendees; apparently, word spread from there.  It had to be by word of mouth, since the internet was still ARPANET, off limits to the rabble.  Eventually, Douglas Adams himself heard about it and thought it was ridiculous.  He said, “I may be a sorry case, but I don’t write jokes in base 13.”

Epilogue:  In my defense, I never tried to attach any cosmic significance to it – I just passed it off as a really, really interesting coincidence.  My attitude was along the lines of, “Hey, who knew you could actually get it to work?”  I also readily admit that I may not be the only person who discovered it (although the job is much harder without access to FORTH or a similar tool). However, the meme has made it onto the web, but my own claim to have been its discoverer (which predates the internet) has been lost to history.

Creative and imaginative people are no strangers to having other people usurp some of our greatest and most innovative achievements, but we still have the satisfaction of knowing both that we were there first and that there will always be a small circle of friends who will believe us.

E.A. Blair is the nom de commenter of someone who has been a teacher, game designer, programmer, logistic support officer and technical writer at various times in his life.  Most of the hits in a search on his real name predate the internet; it appears exactly four times in Wikipedia. The entry for Phrases from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not one of the places.

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6 thoughts on “Runaway Meme – a Pre-Internet Saga in Four Parts

  1. Great story, E.A. We’re not friends but I’ll gladly join the small circle of people who believe you.

  2. Big fan of HHGTTG. Favorite line is,

    “He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

    I’ve often thought the very same thing about my life.

  3. I have no idea what a base 13 is but I enjoyed the story. E.A., you didn’t say how Douglas Adams heard of your find.

  4. Lonny, I have no idea how word of this got to Adams. His books and other works have legions of fans, and they love to chat endlessly about their favorite stuff. This was before the internet, but word got passed at science fiction conventions and the like. Eventually, it got onto the internet, and Adams’ remarks are from a mid-1990s interview. I can only presume that someone asked him about it

    A number base is reflected by the number of digits it uses. We use base ten (0-9); computers use base two, or binary, which only has 0 and 1. Computer programmers also use base eight (0-7) and base sixteen (0-9 and A, B, C, D, E, F). The reason minutes have sixty seconds and hours have sixty minutes is because clocks are based on an ancient Sumerian base sixty system. Base thirteen uses 0-9 and A, B, C.

    Wikipedea explains it here. There’s an old programmer’s joke: “There are 10 kinds of people in the world – those who understand binary and those who don’t”

  5. My knowledge of math is equal to my knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, but this was a great story, well told and like Arthur L. I am a believer.

    Douglas Adams certainly had a knack for making people think.

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