Today is 10/10/10, which is not only one of the relatively rare occasions on which one can write the date without fear of ambiguity in today’s cosmopolitan world, but also the binary expression of the number 42, and hence the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

How can I let that pass without a short memorial to Douglas Adams? After all, it won’t come around again for another century and by then I’ll be getting on a bit and might not remember.

But what memorial? I’ll start with one of my favorite quotes. It’s of no import whatsoever but it still makes me laugh every time I think of it, and what’s bad about that? It’s Douglas in his best P.G.Wodehouse mode. The man was a genius at saying things in a way that catches us short:

‘Dirk, please, if you would,’ said Dirk, grasping his hand warmly, ‘I prefer it. It has more of a sort of Scottish dagger feel to it, I think. Dirk Gently is the name under which I now trade. There are certain events in the past, I’m afraid, from which I would wish to disassociate myself.’

‘Absolutely, I know how you feel. Most of the fourteenth century, for instance, was pretty grim,’ agreed Reg earnestly.

Dirk was about to correct the misapprehension, but thought that it might be somewhat of a long trek and left it.

But here’s something more relevant to both the date and the theme of this blog. Back in the late 90’s my colleagues and I organised a really enjoyable conference on Artificial Life, to which Douglas came. I’d asked him to chair a debate but he balked at this and decided to give an impromptu talk instead (well, fairly impromptu – he tried it out on Richard Dawkins and me the night before in the bar). It was a triumph. Ann transcribed it for us and it now rests for the sake of posterity in Douglas’s official biography. The whole transcript is pretty long (and anyway it’s available on the web in various places), so I’ll just quote a short section for auld lang syne:

I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry [Yaeger] (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that, if it means nothing, not only has no information gone into it but no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.

And he was.

So what did Douglas think about 42? I have a small personal insight into that, because Ann asked him to sign a copy of my all-time favorite book, for my 42nd birthday present. I’ll post that too, because the Web perhaps doesn’t fade as badly as paper. That was over ten years ago. Poor Douglas didn’t make it to my age.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

18 Responses to 101010

  1. Dan says:

    A compelling and well-written post. As far as 101010=42, I used to have a T-shirt that had a binary representation of “go f–k yourself” on it, which has to be the most passive-aggressive object I’ve ever owned.

    • stevegrand says:

      Thank you Dan. Haha! There’s something delightfully paradoxical about an insult that (presumably, knowing you) applies only to those who can’t read it! Nice.

  2. Pius Agius says:

    Hi Steve,

    He was one of my favourite science fiction writers and will be missed. I will never forget the man who introduced Marvin the paranoid android to the world.

  3. Unnamed Newbie says:

    I hope this isn’t too long, and I apologise if you find it somewhat silly. I may well be hilariously wrong here, but in my defense I think it’s fair to say that only something so extraordinary could make Douglas Adams even more extraordinary than he already was, and you can’t blame me for trying 🙂 Douglas is certainly my favorite writer, and gems such as what you quoted reminds me why in many ways he’s also my second favorite philsopher just behind Daniel Dennett. Ah, if only time travel was real and we could bring Douglas back, just one more time.

    I’m extremely intrigued by the juxtapositions you make here. I know Douglas always denied this, but I still can’t help but think it’s the binary representation that really matters, perhaps even unconsciously to him.

    After some time, it always seemed obvious to me that the question’s phrasing was a trick; Life and The Universe are included in Everything, so it’s really just the ‘Ultimate Question of Everything’. And what is the question about everything in which any other answer would be included, by virtue of everything being everything? As far as I can tell, it must be “What is Everything?”

    And my answer to that is quite simple: everything is every possible choice, every possible way all things could be in principle. You could be represent that by an infinite ‘True-False’ pattern, to indicate that anything that could be true could also be false. It is common to represent simple patterns such as this by giving two or three of their first members.

    So in binary, that would be 1010 and 101010 – 10 and 42 respectively, in Base 10. I’m not implying Douglas thought about it that way – but if it is correct, and if it is fundamental, then perhaps the interconectedness of all things is even more powerful than he thought.

    Why am I posting all this? Mostly because of the scan you posted, and the obvious implication: “There is no significance whatsoever to Life, The Universe, and Everything, but enjoy it anyway.” – a wonderful philosophy, and one I strive to share as much as possible.

    P.S.: This is a real nickname and a real e-mail, I’m not posting anonymously fwiw 🙂

    • stevegrand says:

      Ha! Binary numerology! 101010 recurring is also the simplest kind of oscillation, and therefore the very first step in creating any kind of complexity. It all fits. I’m sure Douglas would have approved. And I’m sure he’d be quite chuffed to play second fiddle to Dan, too 🙂 Thanks for that.

  4. Hi Steve,

    Very long time no speak! I’ve been meaning to contact you since listening to an audiobook of Salmon of Doubt a few weeks ago. It contains the Digital Biota talk you mentioned, and which I also count myself extremely lucky to have attended. Very peculiar hearing it re-narrated by Simon Jones, although I have to admit he does an excellent job of capturing Douglas Adam’s tone. I remain amazed at the coherence and invention contained in what was a spontaneous response to the previous days’ conversations. I’m so glad it was recorded!

    I owe you a “Thank You” which is as enormous as it is late, for introducing me to Brian Eno back in 2001. After a few years’ sporadic contact, I started working on the Spore soundtrack with him in 2006, and have been involved in projects with him ever since. It’s been hugely rewarding and great fun – rather life changing, in fact.

    Funny that of all projects he could have been working on, it involved virtual creatures, although despite some superficial similarities, Spore was trying to be a very different thing to Creatures. I was very impressed that they managed to get creatures with arbitrary numbers of limbs to walk successfully, especially as I’d failed miserably at that attempt myself. I think I managed to create a two limbed stick figure that could walk in two dimensions, but that was as far as I got. He was built entirely out of fish, for reasons lost in the mists of time. I always hoped that the ‘all fish’ look would catch on, but sadly the games industry seems to have missed out on that opportunity.

    I see a lot’s changed since we last spoke. Flagstaff looks wonderful, I hope it’s treating you well. I’m now living in Ely, which is as flat in exactly the way that Flagstaff isn’t.

    Best wishes,

    Peter Chilvers

    • stevegrand says:

      Well, well, well! Hello Peter!

      I’m glad you got on so well with Brian. It’s certainly ironic that you were involved in Spore – I knew Brian was but I didn’t realize that it was you too. I’m working on physics-based walking myself, off and on, although with known numbers of legs and no fish are even tangentially involved.

      Ooh! I’ll check out your iPhone apps later. Tell you what: I’m pretty busy today but I’ll drop you an email soon and catch up with all the news. Nice to hear from you again!

  5. Trevor says:

    Dear Steve and Peter,

    I had no idea Steve knew Brian Eno. Hello, Peter – I have Bloom on my iPhone, which is very cool 🙂

    I’ve just got back from Manchester Business School for a meeting of SCiO, which applies the work of Stafford Beer and other systems thinkers to issues iof human organisation. I don’t know if you guys realise that Stafford Beer’s work inspired Brian to invent ambient music. Beer tried to pass on the torch of cybernetics to Brian, but Brian declined to take it up. You can find SCiO at http://www.scio.org.uk.

    I am a charter member of Brian’s Long Now Foundation. I got seduced into Second Life back in 2007 so that I could attend the private viewing of 77 Million Paintings.

    It really is a very small world 🙂

    • stevegrand says:

      No, I didn’t know that Brian and Stafford Beer even knew each other. Thanks for the info! But I think Brian HAS taken up the torch to some extent, at least in the artistic form that was so characteristic of early cybernetics.

      Little anecdote: Brian and I first met when I was giving a talk at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. I was trying to explain to all these black-shirted, postmodern, rather cocky artists just why they should find Conway’s game a totally life-changing experience, and I was finding it hard going (this was my second attempt, too). Basically I was just getting blank stares. How can anyone see the glider configuration and not have a major ontological epiphany??? But then a hand went up at the back, so I nodded and waited for the usual questions about capitalist conspiracies. the owner of the hand said, “It changed my life too”, and suddenly everyone in the room was on my side! That was Brian.

      • Hi Trevor,

        There was a BBC Arena documentary on Brian earlier this year, which had a section on Brian’s interest in Stafford Beer – I seem to recall he was introduced to his work by his mother-in-law, hoping he might settle down and get a proper job in management, but I may be confusing that with a different story.

        Tying in nicely with Steve’s anecdote, there’s also section in the documentary on his enthusiasm for Conway’s Game of Life.

        More importantly, the documentary contains my one and only hand modelling assignment, in a close up shot of Bloom. My neatly trimmed fingernails were, for many, a highlight.



      • Trevor says:

        Hi Peter,

        I saw the documentary, which was rather charming. I hadn’t realised Brian had written the Arena theme tune until then, either.

        I know David Whittaker, who interviewed Brian about Stafford for the programme. David was Beer’s “tome vendor” and recently published “Think before you Think’ which is about Beer’s work. Brian wrote the foreword, where he tells the story of his encounters with the Great Man.

        You are right about the mother-in-law!

        I knew those hands were special! 🙂

  6. Trevor says:

    Nice 🙂

    You are spot on about Brian, of course. He has carried forward the torch in the sense you describe. I tracked down Stafford Beer in the mid 1990s, when I needed help understanding why organisations usually screw up when they try to use ICT to become more “efficient”. I learned a huge amount of stuff from him, which I still use to good effect, even though it is difficult to get management types to understand why it is important.

    Beer was a remarkable character, who spanned a staggering range of fields. He wrote poems in Welsh, English and Sanskrit, as well as working in management and the visual arts. Brian shares that diversity of interests. I have immense respect for what the Long Now Foundation is trying to do!

  7. ljbruce3 says:

    Hi Steve

    I have a question that I would like to ask. I’m working on a little robotics project right now trying to make a smart bug robot. Right now i’m working on the design. I was wondering if having an AI or AL ”brain” would be realistic in a robot about the size of a computer mouse. My concept is having an environment built for the bug robots where supply gathering is needed for their survival. I’ve designed the robot to see with a light sensitive diode that would lead it to a weighted led that when put on a switch will activate a light to charge the robot. Any information you could give me would be a huge help. My research ability is kinda limited since I only have a smart phone to work with.

    • stevegrand says:


      Well, there are artificial brains and there are artificial brains! The problem with trying to put a complex brain into a simple robot is that it’s very hard to be intelligent when you don’t have good senses and there’s not much you can do to the world. If all you can see is light and dark, and all you can do is move left and right, even a human being would find it hard to express their intelligence.

      OTOH, there is still a lot you can do – perhaps in the area of evolutionary computing or “invertebrate”-style neural networks. Lots of fine people have done work in this area, so Google will point you in the right direction. One of the most common lab robots is about the size of a mouse. And a smartphone is plenty smart enough – my iPhone’s computer has 16 million times as much memory as the first computer I owned! The first robots to navigate towards their battery chargers had just a couple of vacuum tubes to do the work, so you don’t even need a computer – Google BEAM robotics.

      Best of luck!

      • ljbruce3 says:

        Thank you for the advice Steve. The big problem i’ve had with this project has been my imagination being too big. 🙂 at first I wanted to recreate an ant colony with small smart bots, which is well beyond my means and ability. I may have a better idea now that I have a better grasp on my limitations. If you have any interest, I am more than happy to keep you up to date on my progress.

        Also, I am so jealous of you. I love Douglas Adams. That’s one hell of a birthday gift you have there.

      • stevegrand says:

        Of course – let me know how it goes.

        I shouldn’t worry about biting off more than you can chew – we all do that 😉

  8. talkingtostones says:

    Isn’t it wonderful how knowing Douglas as you did not only brought you the pleasure of his company and enjoyment of his mind, but also connected you with other friends and the many who so love his work? Douglas is still alive in that; still bringing people together, sparking conversations, and stimulating life-changing ideas. The ripples and connections from his existence continue to play out. Douglas himself therefore represents 42. I love all the ways his ideas and thoughts continue to take on new meaning and relevance, add layers to understanding, and continue to be true despite even changes in his physical existence. He gave generously of himself and his mind, and we continue benefiting from that.

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