“A towel is about the most mind-bogglingly useful thing any interstellar hitchhiker can carry…”

Today is Towel Day, universally recognised as the single most important day of the year for fellow fans of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, when all members of the great following carry their towels in solidarity for the Hitchhiker’s cause; because you should always know where your towel is. You might expect that I would take this opportunity to write a long fan-service tribute to Douglas Adams, the series’ creator, but I already did one of those last year. No, today I turn to the very subject matter of today itself and, indeed, a central theme in much of Adams’ work; towels.

I don’t think I can begin in any better place than to quote the Guide itself on the subject of towels:

“A towel, it [the Guide] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to- hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

…before going on to talk about the immense psychological value gained by being the kind of frood who always knows where his towel is through whatever horrors the universe may throw at him. However, excellent though the passage is, the relevance of this to our earthly towel-related endeavours is somewhat limited. There is very little need, for example, for a Londoner to protect himself from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of a planet several hundred light-years away, or ability for casual suburbanite to ‘bound across’ many cold moons. Due to the relatively limited advancement of earthly towel technology, some of the advice stated there is not only irrelevant but downright unhelpful; a towel makes for a slow, unwieldy weapon in hand-to-hand combat (a problem only exacerbated once said towel is sopping wet) that can be combatted easily with a well-timed rush if it fails, as is unfortunately likely, to disable one’s opponent in its first strike. And since most towels are made from fabric, rather than ‘solid’ material, the protection they offer against any particularly noxious fumes is minimal at best; OK for keeping out dust and smells, but not much more.

Many of the problems relating to towels and their lack of prevalence in our modern-day existence concerns weight and volume. Your typical bath-towel must, in order to wrap around bodies of all sizes adequately, measure about 0.8 x 1.5m, as well as being able to absorb a good quantity of water with some comfort. In most ‘traditional’ towels, this takes the form of taking a piece of fabric baselayer and adding loops of absorbent material to it. These loops trap the water close to the fabric via surface tension (probably; I’m trying to apply my limited knowledge of fluid dynamics here), and longer loops allow for more water to be absorbed- the upper limit can be seen in your typical bath towel construction. This material is known as terrycloth, and is usually made from cotton (sometimes with a little polyester). However, all of these tiny little loops add up to a sizeable quantity of stuff, such that even when pressed flat they turn a towel into a pretty thick bit of material. This combined with the size of any useful towel means that even a folded up one takes up a lot of space in, say, a suitcase, making it impractical as an everyday item to carry around with you. Its size also presence a psychological issue, making it difficult to carry discreetly. The over-the-shoulder approach displayed proudly by Towel Day practitioners will, in everyday life, make one a target for minor abuse and funny looks from people you may happen to bump into, and is hardly suitable for events other than special occasions. Not only that, but a terrycloth construction makes any large towel heavy, decreasing its practicality both for transport and general use. Small wonder towels present a major problem to holidaymakers with limited suitcase space every year.

A solution that has presented itself in recent years to the towel/travelling problem is the microfibre towel, a typically smaller, lightweight version. These do not use looped material to absorb water; instead, the microfibre (kevlar, interestingly, is a common choice of material for microfibre, although not necessarily towels) designed specifically to be very thin, allowing it to be woven incredibly finely and to have highly absorbent properties, as well as drying out quickly. Microfibre towels offer many benefits; they are thin, lightweight and easy to manipulate, allowing them to be stored with ease, and because of their ultrafine construction will probably present a better barrier to the aforementioned noxious fumes. However, this feature has also proved their downfall to the towel enthusiast; by marketing themselves as ‘travel towels’, designed solely for the purpose of taking up as little space as possible in a suitcase, it is virtually impossible to find one that is not too thin and too small to be very useful with in a non-drying oneself context. My own travel towel, which I do find makes an acceptable backup, never feels like it could hold my weight (always an important consideration in considering the usefulness of one’s towel; you never know when you’re going to need an impromptu rope) like my bath towel can, and I can barely fit around my waist if I use it in the shower; it would make a useless raft-sail. In their current format, therefore, microfibre towels are not the solution to the problem of the convenient towel.

With contemporary towel technology, the best solution is probably the beach towel; they are reasonably lightweight, strong, comfortable, available in a variety of shapes & sizes to suit one’s need, and they make up for in maneouvreability what they lack in absorbance. A medium-sized beach towel is a good compromise for many basic needs, and I advocate keeping one in the car (seriously, you’d be amazed how often they can come in handy).  But perhaps microfibre may be the way forward at some point in the future; especially if we can one day get rid of the tiresome stigma that comes with striding down the street, proudly carrying one’s towel slung boldly across the shoulder, ready to take on the universe.

Advertisements

The Hidden Benefits

Corporations are having a rather rough time of it at the minute in the PR department. This is only to be expected given the current economic climate, and given the fact that almost exactly the same feelings of annoyance and distrust were expressed during the other two major economic downturns of the last 100 years. Big business has always been the all-pervasive face of ‘the man’, and when said man has let us down (either during a downturn or at any point in history when somebody is holding a guitar), they tend to be (often justifiably) the main victims of hatred. In essence, they are ‘the bad guys’.

However, no matter how cynical you are, there are a couple of glaring inconsistencies in this concept- things that can either (depending on your perspective) make the bad guys seem nice, make nice things seem secretly evil, or just make you go “WTF?”. Here we can find the proverbial shades of grey.

Let us consider, for instance, tourism. Nobody who lives anywhere even remotely pretty or interesting likes tourists, and some of the local nicknames for them, especially in coastal areas for some reason, are simultaneously interesting, hilarious and bizarre. They are an annoying bunch of people, seeming always to be asking dumb questions and trailing around places like flocks of lost sheep, and with roughly the same mental agility- although since the rest of us all act exactly the same when we are on holiday, then it’s probably better to tolerate them a little. Then there is the damage they can do to a local area, ranging from footpath erosion and littering to the case o the planet Bethselamin, “which is now so worried about the cumulative erosion of 10 billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from your body weight when you leave- so every time you go to the lavatory there it is vitally important to get a receipt” (Douglas Adams again). The tourism industry is often accused of stifling local economies in places like Yorkshire or the Lake District, where entire towns can consist of nothing but second homes (sending the local housing market haywire), tea shops and B&B’s, with seemingly no way out of a spiral of dependence upon it.

However, what if I was to tell you that tourism is possibly the single most powerful force acting towards the preservation of biodiversity and the combating of climate change? You might think me mad, but consider this- why is there still Amazonian rainforest left? Why are there vast tracks of national path all over southern Africa? We might (and in fact should) be able to think of dozens of very good reasons for preserving these habitats, not least the benefits to making sure that all of our great planet’s inhabitants are allowed to survive without being crushed under the proverbial bulldozer that is civilisation, and the value to the environment of the carbon sink of the rainforests. But, unfortunately, when viewed from a purely clinical standpoint these arguments do not stand up. Consider the rainforest- depending on your perspective this is either a natural resource that is useful for all sorts of namby-pamby reasons like ensuring the planet doesn’t suffocate, or a source of a potentially huge amount of money. Timber is valuable stuff, especially given the types (such as mahogany) and sizes of trees one gets in the Amazon delta. Factor in that gain with the fact that many of the countries who own such rainforest are desperately poor and badly need the cash, and suddenly the plight of the Lesser Purple-Crested Cockroach seems less important.

And here tourists come to the rescue, for they are the sole financial justification for the preservation  of the rainforests. The idea of keeping all this natural biodiversity for people to have is all well and good, but this idea backed up by the prospect of people paying large sums of money to come and see it becomes doubly attractive, interesting governments in potential long-term financial gain rather than the quick buck that is to be gained from just using up their various natural resources from a purely industrial point of view.

Tourism is not the only industry that props up an entire section of life that we all know and love. Let me throw some names at you: Yahoo, Facebook, Google, Twitter. What do all of those (and many other besides) have in common? Firstly, that all are based on the internet, and secondly that the services offered by all three are entirely free. Contrast that against similarity three, that all are multi-billion dollar companies. How does this work? Answer, similarity 4: all gain their income from the advertising industry.

Advertising and marketing is another sect of modern business that we all hate, as adverts are always annoying by their presence, and can be downright offensively horrible in some cases. Aggressive marketing is basically the reason we can’t have nice things generally, and there is something particularly soulless about an industry whose sole purpose is to sell you things based on what they say, rather than what’s good about whatever they’re selling. They are perhaps the personification of the evils of big business, and yet without it, huge tracts of the internet, the home of the rebellion against modern consumer culture, would simply not be able to exist. Without advertising, the information Facebook has on its hundreds of millions of users would be financially useless, let alone the users themselves, and thus it would not be able to exist as a company or, probably, an entity at all, let alone one that has just completed one of the highest-value stock market flotations in commercial history. Google would exist perhaps merely as a neat idea, something a geek might have thought of in college and never been able to turn into a huge business that deals with a gigantic stake in web traffic as well as running its own social network, email service and even the web browser I am typing this on.

This doesn’t make advertisers and tourism companies suddenly all angels in the light of the world, and they are probably just as deserving of all the cynicism they get (equally deserving, probably, are Facebook and Google, but this would ruin my argument). But it’s worth thinking that, no matter how pushy or annoying they start to get, it may be a small price to pay for the benefits their very existence lends to us.

The Great Mr Adams

As one or two of you may be aware, my very first post on this blog extolled the virtues of one man- a certain Dr M von Vogelhausen of Amazon, internet, and his truly legendary reviews. He’s still a legend, check  his stuff out. However, since then I haven’t done a one-man profile again, but today that is about to change, as I review a man once described as ‘a possible fragment of the humour singularity’. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Douglas Adams.

Now, I am quite aware that Adams, being a bestselling novelist and general public figure, is quite more well known than Dr M is, and probably doesn’t need me to add to the chorus of voices who have extolled his virtues over the years. But bring him up I nonetheless do, for three reasons- firstly, there are STILL some new people I meet who have never heard of him, despite the fact that his earliest work is now 34 years old, secondly because I would like to reintroduce those who have been put off by his odd writing style and inability to tell a straight-faced joke and labelled him ‘unfunny’ to his world, and thirdly because I had something of a Hitchiker’s refreshment course yesterday evening. It was awesome.

So, Douglas Adams: born in Cambridge in 1952, his story really comes to be of interest in 1971, whilst hitch-hiking around Europe. Lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with his copy of ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to Europe’ beside him and staring up at the Milky Way above him, he thought that somebody really ought to make a Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy as well, showing the sparks of offbeat, eccentric genius that would typify his later work. After graduating from Cambridge University he headed to London to try and break into radio & TV as a writer, following his English degree and a passion for creative writing. Despite working with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman for a while and even appearing in a couple of sketches, he struggled to fit in with writing for his chosen media, and work was slow for much of the seventies. Then, in 1978, he began working on a six-part radio series called ‘The Ends of the Earth’, the idea being that each episode would end with the world being destroyed in a different way. Working on the first episode, Adams realised he had a problem. To make his story work, he needed there to be an alien of some sort on Earth, and more importantly a reason for him to be there. Eventually, his piece of 7 year-old inspiration came back to him, and his character became a roving researcher for a wholly remarkable book: The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character became Ford Prefect (so named because, having not done his research properly, he thought that the name would be nicely inconspicuous) and, along with the tea-obsessed, dressing gown-wearing and very English main character Arthur Dent, would become a central feature of both that episode and, as Adams quickly changed tack to follow this new story instead of writing 5 new ones, the rest of the series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

That radio series was broadcast in 1978, and catapulted Adams to fame. It was something of a love/hate thing- some thought Adams quirky, offbeat sense of humour was weird and unfunny, whilst others declared him a comic genius for the invention of, say, the Babel fish:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and possibly the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing unconscious frequencies and then excreting a complex matrix formed from the concious frequencies picked up from the speech centres of the brain- the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand everything said to you in any form of language. The speech you here decodes the brainwave matrix.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many races have chosen to use it as final clinching proof of the nonexistence of God*. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”

“BUT” says man “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t, QED”

“Oh dear” says God “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says man, and for an encore he goes on to prove that black is white and get’s killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, having effectively removed all barriers of communication between species, has caused more and bloodier wars than any race in the history of the galaxy.

*It is worth mentioning that Adams was a staunch atheist

So… yeah, that’s Douglas Adams humour- my unfortunate friends have to put up with me spouting that kind of stuff a lot. That’s hardly an isolated example either, for Adams has proposed, explained or made mention of the concepts of spaceships powered by improbability (and, indirectly, tea), restaurant mathematics and bad news, exactly how to throw oneself at the ground and miss, custom-made luxury planet building, a restaurant at the end of the universe that works by being impossible in at least 6 ways, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effect of which is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) the unimaginable usefulness of a towel, the Somebody Else’s Problem field, Vogon Poetry (and that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, a corruption of the name of someone Adams went to university with) and the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything (42, in case you’re interested- they just keep having problems finding the Ultimate Question). To name but a few. You get the general picture.

After the success of the first radio series, the BBC commissioned a second. Between and after this, Adams turned his attention to novel writing, and began a tradition of substantially rewriting the storyline with each new incarnation of it to, among other things, ‘annoy the fans’. The first part of what would later become his famous ‘trilogy in five parts’ was published in 1979, and was later followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (all of which are references to parts of the first book). He also produced a 1981 TV adaptation, and a few other projects including the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the little joke dictionary The Meaning of Liff, and a radio series and book entitled Last Chance to See, about endangered species.

But… what is it that makes him so special? Why the cult following? Why national towel day? Why do I know that Babel Fish quote above by heart? Well… I really don’t know. I can’t quantify the quirkiness, the jokes, the flashes of abstract genius that none bar perhaps Terry Pratchett have ever emulated, the way that every successive adaptation is sufficiently different that every fan’s experience is a little difference. I was indoctrinated through the radio series, think the TV adaptation is rubbish and that the books can’t quite capture the humour as well- but other people I know insist that the literary form is the greatest piece of writing in the universe. As for the film, I think it’s… different and not quite as amazing, but for some of my friends it’s their only dip in the ocean of Adams, and they loved every minute. Others thought it was terrible. It’s a funny old thing.

Adams died in 2002, long before his time. As Richard Dawkins said, in his passing “science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender”. But his stories will never die, so long as there are people willing to enjoy and remember them. They are not stories for everyone, but they’re something everyone should try, just in case they’re perfect for you. And remember, on May 25th: everyone should know where his towel is.

Time is a funny old thing…

Today I am rather short on time- the work I have to do is beginning to mount up despite (and partially because) of a long weekend. To most people this is a perfectly good reason to put up an apologetic cop-out of a post to prevent them having to work on it, but for me, it is a perfectly good excuse for my bloodymindedness to take over, so I thought I might write something about time.
As such a strange and almost abstract concept as it is, time can be viewed from a number of perspectives- the physical sense, the thermodynamic sense, and the human sense are the three obvious ones that spring to mind. To a physicist, time is a dimension much like width and length, and is far from unique- in fact there is a large sector of theoretical physics open to the idea that in the big bang there were many millions of dimensions, only 4 of which (3 spacial and one temporal) opened up into the rest of the universe, the other dimensions only existing on a microscopic, atomic scale (which might explain why the quantum world is so plain weird. Hey- I’m no physicist, and the web can probably tell you more). The really special thing about time compared to spacial dimensions to a physicist (among a long list, that are confusing and difficult to describe), is that it is the only dimension with an obvious direction. People often talk of ‘the arrow of time’, but the idea of any other dimension having an arrow is only a sort of arbitrary point of reference (north & south, up & down are only relative to our own earth and so are merely convenient reference points. This idea of time having an irreversible arrow annoys a lot of physicists as there appears to be little, fundamentally, that means we couldn’t travel in time in the other direction- the theory of relativity, for example, shows how fluid time can be. The idea of time’s direction has a lot to do with thermodynamics, which is where the second perspective of time comes from.
Really I am using the word thermodynamic very loosely, as what I am really thinking of is more to do with the psychological arrow of time. To quickly paraphrase what I mean by thermodynamics, the second law of thermodynamics states that the universe’s level of entropy, or randomness, will always increase or stay the same, never decrease, because a more random, chaotic system is more stable. One way of thinking of this is like a beach- the large swathes of sand can be arranged in a huge number of configurations and still seem the same, but if there are lots of sandcastles over it, there is a lot less randomness. One can seemingly reverse this process by building more sandcastles, making the universe more ordered, but to do this requires energy which, on a universal level, increases the universe’s entropic level. It is for this reason that a smashed pot will always have been preceded, but not followed by, the same pot all in one piece.
The thing is, the psychological and thermodynamic arrows of time point in the same direction, and their link on one another is integral. Our whole view of the passing of time is influenced by the idea of events that have irrevocably ‘happened’ and are ‘over’, hence our eternal fascination with ‘what if’s’. We persistently worry about past mistakes, what could have been, and what things were like, but never can be- hence the popularity of historical stories, ruins, nostalgia and grumbling about teenagers. For a better explanation of the various ‘arrows of time’, try Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’- it is somewhat out of date now and it is fashionable now to think of it as overly simplistic, but it’s still a good source of a grounding in high-level physics
The final, and to me most interesting, perspective of time I want to talk about is deeply linked to the psychological arrow and our thoughts of the passing of time, but brings its own, uniquely relative, view- the human perspective (notice how it is always people I seem to find the most interesting.) We humans view time in a way that, when thought about, paints a weirdly fluid portrait of the behaviour of time. There is never enough time to work, too much time spent waiting, not enough time spent on holidays or relaxing, too much time spent out of work, too little time spent eating the cake and too much spent washing up. There are the awkward pauses in conversation that seem to drag on for an eternity, especially when they come just after the moment when the entire room goes silent for no accountable reason, enabling everyone to hear the most embarrassing part of your conversation. There are those hours spent doing things you love that you just gobble up, revelling in your own happiness, and the bitter, painful minutes of deep personal pain.
Popular culture and everyday life often mentions or features these weirdly human notions of time being so relative to the scenario- Albert Einstein himself described relativity thus: “When you are talking to a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you have your hand on a bar of red-hot iron, a second seems like an hour”. In fact, when you think about it, it is almost as if time appears to be a living thing, at least in the context of our references to it. This, I think anyway, is the nub of the matter- time is something that we encounter, in its more thermodynamic form, every day of our lives, and just like pet owners will tend to anthropomorphise their pets’ facial expressions, so the human race has personified time in general conversation (well, at least in the western world- I cannot speak for anywhere non English-speaking as a certainty). Time is almost one of the family- ever-present, ever-around, ever-referred to, until it becomes as human as a long-lost friend, in its own little way.
Finally, on the subject of time, Mr Douglas Adams: “Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”