Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams


At that moment the problem was solved by the man from the BBC, who suddenly wrenched himself out of the logical half-nelson into which his neighbours had got him, and told the girl off for kicking the table. She stopped kicking the table, and instead kicked the air with redoubled vigour. He told her to try and enjoy herself, so she kicked him. This did something to bring a brief glimmer of pleasure into her glum evening, but it didn't last. Her father briefly shared with the table at large his feelings about baby-sitters who let people down, but nobody felt able to run with the topic.

"A major season of Buxtehude," resumed the Director of Music, "is of course clearly long overdue. I'm sure you'll be looking forward to remedying this situation at the first opportunity."

"Oh, er, yes," replied the girl's father, spilling his soup, "er, that is... he's not the same one as Gluck, is he?"

The little girl kicked the table leg again. When her father looked sternly at her, she put her head on one side and mouthed a question at him.

"Not now," he insisted at her as quietly as he could.

"When, then?"

"Later. Maybe. Later, we'll see."

She hunched grumpily back in her seat. "You always say later," she mouthed at him.

"Poor child," murmured Reg. "There isn't a don at this table who doesn't behave exactly like that inside. Ah, thank you." Their soup arrived, distracting his attention, and Richard's.

"So tell me," said Reg, after they had both had a couple of spoonsful and arrived independently at the same conclusion, that it was not a taste explosion, "what you've been up to, my dear chap. Something to do with computers, I understand, and also to do with music. I thought you read English when you were here--though only, I realise, in your spare time." He looked at Richard significantly over the rim of his soup spoon. "Now wait," he interrupted before Richard even had a chance to start, "don't I vaguely remember that you had some sort of computer when you were here? When was it? 1977?"

"Well, what we called a computer in 1977 was really a kind of electric abacus, but..."

"Oh, now, don't underestimate the abacus," said Reg. "In skilled hands it's a very sophisticated calculating device. Furthermore it requires no power, can be made with any materials you have to hand, and never goes bing in the middle of an important piece of work."

"So an electric one would be particularly pointless," said Richard.

"True enough," conceded Reg.

"There really wasn't a lot this machine could do that you couldn't do yourself in half the time with a lot less trouble," said Richard, "but it was, on the other hand, very good at being a slow and dim--witted pupil."

Reg looked at him quizzically.

"I had no idea they were supposed to be in short supply," he said. "I could hit a dozen with a bread roll from where I'm sitting."

"I'm sure. But look at it this way. What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?"

This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from up and down the table.

Richard continued, "What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that's really the essence of programming. By the time you've sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you've certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn't that true?"

"It would be hard to learn much less than my pupils," came a low growl from somewhere on the table, "without undergoing a pre-frontal lobotomy."

"So I used to spend days struggling to write essays on this 16K machine that would have taken a couple of hours on a typewriter, but what was fascinating to me was the process of trying to explain to the machine what it was I wanted it to do. I virtually wrote my own word processor in BASIC. A simple search and replace routine would take about three hours."

"I forget, did you ever get any essays done at all?"

"Well, not as such. No actual essays, but the reasons why not were absolutely fascinating. For instance, I discovered that..."

He broke off, laughing at himself.

"I was also playing keyboards in a rock group, of course," he added. "That didn't help."

"Now, that I didn't know," said Reg. "Your past has murkier things in it than I dreamed possible. A quality, I might add, that it shares with this soup." He wiped his mouth with his napkin very carefully. "I must go and have a word with the kitchen staff one day. I would like to be sure that they are keeping the right bits and throwing the proper bits away. So. A rock group, you say. Well, well, well. Good heavens."

"Yes," said Richard. "We called ourselves The Reasonably Good Band, but in fact we weren't. Our intention was to be the Beatles of the early eighties, but we got much better financial and legal advice than the Beatles ever did, which was basically "Don't bother", so we didn't. I left Cambridge and starved for three years."

"But didn't I bump into you during that period," said Reg, "and you said you were doing very well?"

"As a road sweeper, yes. There was an awful lot of mess on the roads. More than enough, I felt, to support an entire career. However, I got the sack for sweeping the mess on to another sweeper's patch."

Reg shook his head. "The wrong career for you, I'm sure. There are plenty of vocations where such behaviour would ensure rapid preferment."

"I tried a few--none of them much grander, though. And I kept none of them very long, because I was always too tired to do them properly. I'd be found asleep slumped over the chicken sheds or filing cabinets--depending on what the job was. Been up all night with the computer you see, teaching it to play "Three Blind Mice". It was an important goal for me."

"I'm sure," agreed Reg. "Thank you," he said to the college servant who took his half-finished plate of soup from him, "thank you very much. "Three Blind Mice", eh? Good. Good. So no doubt you succeeded eventually, and this accounts for your present celebrated status. Yes?"

"Well, there's a bit more to it than that."

"I feared there might be. Pity you didn't bring it with you though. It might have cheered up the poor young lady who is currently having our dull and crusty company forced upon her. A swift burst of "Three Blind Mice" would probably do much to revive her spirits." He leaned forward to look past his two right-hand neighbours at the girl, who was still sitting sagging in her chair.

"Hello," he said.

She looked up in surprise, and then dropped her eyes shyly, swinging her legs again.

"Which do you think is worse," enquired Reg, "the soup or the company?"

She gave a tiny, reluctant laugh and shrugged, still looking down.

"I think you're wise not to commit yourself at this stage," continued Reg. "Myself, I'm waiting to see the carrots before I make any judgements. They've been boiling them since the weekend, but I fear it may not be enough. The only thing that could possibly be worse than the carrots is Watkin. He's the man with the silly glasses sitting between us. My name's Reg, by the way. Come over and kick me when you have a moment." The girl giggled and glanced up at Watkin, who stiffened and made an appallingly unsuccessful attempt to smile good--naturedly.

"Well, little girl," he said to her awkwardly, and she had desperately to suppress a hoot of laughter at his glasses. Little conversation therefore ensued, but the girl had an ally, and began to enjoy herself a tiny little bit. Her father gave her a relieved smile.

Reg turned back to Richard, who said, suddenly, "Do you have any family?"

"Er... no," said Reg, quietly. "But tell me. After "Three Blind Mice", what then?"

"Well, to cut a long story short, Reg, I ended up working for WayForward Technologies..."

"Ah, yes, the famous Mr Way. Tell me, what's he like?"

Richard was always faintly annoyed by this question, probably because he was asked it so often.

"Both better and worse than he's represented in the press. I like him a lot, actually. Like any driven man he can be a bit trying at times, but I've known him since the very early days of the company when neither he nor I had a bean to our names. He's fine. It's just that it's a good idea not to let him have your phone number unless you possess an industrial-grade answering machine."

"What? Why's that?"

"Well, he's one of those people who can only think when he's talking. When he has ideas, he has to talk them out to whoever will listen. Or, if the people themselves are not available, which is increasingly the case, their answering machines will do just as well. He just phones them up and talks at them. He has one secretary whose sole job is to collect tapes from people he might have phoned, transcribe them, sort them and give him the edited text the next day in a blue folder."

"A blue one, eh?"

"Ask me why he doesn't simply use a tape recorder," said Richard with a shrug.

Reg considered this. "I expect he doesn't use a tape recorder because he doesn't like talking to himself," he said. "There is a logic there. Of a kind."

He took a mouthful of his newly arrived porc au poivre and ruminated on it for a while before gently laying his knife and fork aside again for the moment.

"So what," he said at last, "is the role of young MacDuff in all this?"

"Well, Gordon assigned me to write a major piece of software for the Apple Macintosh. Financial spreadsheet, accounting, that sort of thing, powerful, easy to use, lots of graphics. I asked him exactly what he wanted in it, and he just said, "Everything. I want the top piece of all-singing, all-dancing business software for that machine." And being of a slightly whimsical turn of mind I took him literally.

"You see, a pattern of numbers can represent anything you like, can be used to map any surface, or modulate any dynamic process--and so on. And any set of company accounts are, in the end, just a pattern of numbers. So I sat down and wrote a program that'll take those numbers and do what you like with them. If you just want a bar graph it'll do them as a bar graph, if you want them as a pie chart or scatter graph it'll do them as a pie chart or scatter graph. If you want dancing girls jumping out of the pie chart in order to distract attention from the figures the pie chart actually represents, then the program will do that as well. Or you can turn your figures into, for instance, a flock of seagulls, and the formation they fly in and the way in which the wings of each gull beat will be determined by the performance of each division of your company. Great for producing animated corporate logos that actually mean something.

"But the silliest feature of all was that if you wanted your company accounts represented as a piece of music, it could do that as well. Well, I thought it was silly. The corporate world went bananas over it."

Reg regarded him solemnly from over a piece of carrot poised delicately on his fork in front of him, but did not interrupt.

"You see, any aspect of a piece of music can be expressed as a sequence or pattern of numbers," enthused Richard. "Numbers can express the pitch of notes, the length of notes, patterns of pitches and lengths."

"You mean tunes," said Reg. The carrot had not moved yet.

Richard grinned.

"Tunes would be a very good word for it. I must remember that."

"It would help you speak more easily." Reg returned the carrot to his plate, untasted. "And this software did well, then?" he asked.

"Not so much here. The yearly accounts of most British companies emerged sounding like the Dead March from Saul, but in Japan they went for it like a pack of rats. It produced lots of cheery company anthems that started well, but if you were going to criticise you'd probably say that they tended to get a bit loud and squeaky at the end. Did spectacular business in the States, which was the main thing, commercially. Though the thing that's interesting me most now is what happens if you leave the accounts out of it. Turn the numbers that represent the way a swallow's wings beat directly into music. What would you hear? Not the sound of cash registers, according to Gordon."

"Fascinating," said Reg, "quite fascinating," and popped the carrot at last into his mouth. He turned and leaned forward to speak to his new girlfriend.

"Watkin loses," he pronounced. "The carrots have achieved a new all--time low. Sorry, Watkin, but awful as you are, the carrots, I'm afraid, are world-beaters."

The girl giggled more easily than last time and she smiled at him. Watkin was trying to take all this good-naturedly, but it was clear as his eyes swam at Reg that he was more used to discomfiting than being discomfited.

"Please, Daddy, can I now?" With her new-found, if slight, confidence, the girl had also found a voice.

"Later," insisted her father.

"This is already later. I've been timing it."

"Well..." He hesitated, and was lost.

"We've been to Greece," announced the girl in a small but awed voice.

"Ah, have you indeed," said Watkin, with a little nod. "Well, well. Anywhere in particular, or just Greece generally?"

"Patmos," she said decisively. "It was beautiful. I think Patmos is the most beautiful place in the whole world. Except the ferry never came when it said it would. Never, ever. I timed it. We missed our flight but I didn't mind."

"Ah, Patmos, I see," said Watkin, who was clearly roused by the news. "Well, what you have to understand, young lady, is that the Greeks, not content with dominating the culture of the Classical world, are also responsible for the greatest, some would say the only, work of true creative imagination produced this century as well. I refer of course to the Greek ferry timetables. A work of the sublimest fiction. Anyone who has travelled in the Aegean will confirm this. Hmm, yes. I think so."

She frowned at him.

"I found a pot," she said.

"Probably nothing," interrupted her father hastily. "You know the way it is. Everyone who goes to Greece for the first time thinks they've found a pot, don't they? Ha, ha."

There were general nods. This was true. Irritating, but true.

"I found it in the harbour," she said, "in the water. While we were waiting for the damn ferry."

"Sarah! I've told you..."

"It's just what you called it. And worse. You called it words I didn't think you knew. Anyway, I thought that if everyone here was meant to be so clever, then someone would be able to tell me if it was a proper ancient Greek thing or not. I think it's very old. Will you please let them see it, Daddy?"

Her father shrugged hopelessly and started to fish about under his chair.

"Did you know, young lady," said Watkin to her, "that the Book of Revelation was written on Patmos? It was indeed. By Saint John the Divine, as you know. To me it shows very clear signs of having been written while waiting for a ferry. Oh, yes, I think so. It starts off, doesn't it, with that kind of dreaminess you get when you're killing time, getting bored, you know, just making things up, and then gradually grows to a sort of climax of hallucinatory despair. I find that very suggestive. Perhaps you should write a paper on it." He nodded at her.

She looked at him as if he were mad.

"Well, here it is," said her father, plonking the thing down on the table. "Just a pot, as you see. She's only six," he added with a grim smile, "aren't you, dear?"

"Seven," said Sarah.

The pot was quite small, about five inches high and four inches across at its widest point. The body was almost spherical, with a very narrow neck extending about an inch above the body. The neck and about half of the surface area were encrusted with hard-caked earth, but the parts of the pot that could be seen were of a rough, ruddy texture.

Sarah took it and thrust it into the hands of the don sitting on her right.

"You look clever," she said. "Tell me what you think."

The don took it, and turned it over with a slightly supercilious air. "I'm sure if you scraped away the mud from the bottom," he remarked wittily, "it would probably say "Made in Birmingham"."

"That old, eh?" said Sarah's father with a forced laugh. "Long time since anything was made there."

"Anyway," said the don, "not my field, I'm a molecular biologist. Anyone else want to have a look?"

This question was not greeted with wild yelps of enthusiasm, but nevertheless the pot was passed from hand to hand around the far end of the table in a desultory fashion. It was goggled at through pebble glasses, peered at through horn-rims, gazed at over half-moons, and squinted at by someone who had left his glasses in his other suit, which he very much feared had now gone to the cleaner's. No one seemed to know how old it was, or to care very much. The young girl's face began to grow downhearted again.

"Sour lot," said Reg to Richard. He picked up a silver salt cellar again and held it up.

"Young lady," he said, leaning forward to address her.

"Oh, not again, you old fool," muttered the aged archaeologist Cawley, sitting back and putting his hands over his ears.

"Young lady," repeated Reg, "regard this simple silver salt cellar. Regard this simple hat."

"You haven't got a hat," said the girl sulkily.

"Oh," said Reg, "a moment please," and he went and fetched his woolly red one.

"Regard," he said again, "this simple silver salt cellar. Regard this simple woolly hat. I put the salt cellar in the hat, thus, and I pass the hat to you. The next part of the trick, dear lady... is up to you."

He handed the hat to her, past their two intervening neighbours, Cawley and Watkin. She took the hat and looked inside it.

"Where's it gone?" she asked, staring into the hat.

"It's wherever you put it," said Reg.

"Oh," said Sarah, "I see. Well... that wasn't very good."

Reg shrugged. "A humble trick, but it gives me pleasure," he said, and turned back to Richard. "Now, what were we talking about?"

Richard looked at him with a slight sense of shock. He knew that the Professor had always been prone to sudden and erratic mood swings, but it was as if all the warmth had drained out of him in an instant. He now wore the same distracted expression Richard had seen on his face when first he had arrived at his door that evening, apparently completely unexpected. Reg seemed then to sense that Richard was taken aback and quickly reassembled a smile.

"My dear chap!" he said. "My dear chap! My dear, dear chap! What was I saying?"

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