Friday, April 29, 2005

Remembering Douglas Adams

Since Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has finally made it into movie form (after being in radio, TV, computer game and book form), the media is awash with stories about its originator, Douglas Adams. Friends and acquaintances hold forth with memories of him on this annoyingly designed web site, which would have given Adams a chuckle, I'm sure. (The web site design, that is, not the reminiscences.)

It reminded me of the time I got the privilege of seeing him speak in person.

My company sent me to a Microsoft conference on their initiative to finally acknowledge the popularity of the internet (their original stance was that it was merely a fad), and Douglas Adams was the keynote speaker on day three. Btw, Microsoft knows how to throw a party, and a conference for that matter, so if you ever have the opportunity to go - especially if your company is paying for it - go. One of the many fun discoveries is that Bill Gates is apparently photogenic. (...it'll come to you later.)

I can't recreate the speech Adams gave, because it was brilliant, and because something happened with the tape of the speech some of us paid for but none of us received. It centered around people's perceptions of computers and what they're useful for. It went something like this: "Well, in trying to understand what a computer is, what it does, people were puzzled until spreadsheets came out, and then they said, 'Oh! It's a calculator.' Later, when word processors came out, people said, 'Oh! It's a typewriter.' But then the internet was invented, and the people, finally understanding, said, 'Oh! It's a pamphlet!'" Of course, it was much funnier the way he put it.

Anyway, I got there early to get a good seat up front, and was disappointed that the whole first row was reserved, until I saw whom it was reserved for. All the seats in the front had a sign attached that read, "Reserved for the Visually Handicapped."

It was just too good. I even wondered if it was the setup for a joke later.

So I turned to the guy next to me and said, "What a hoot that they have the first row reserved for the visually handicapped! I mean, if you're blind, does it really help to put you closer to the stage? They should put them over by the speakers, really."

Of course I would make this remark to the ONE GUY who saw no humor in the situation - at a Douglas Adams talk, no less, which is like going to a Marcel Marceau show and sitting next to the one guy who doesn't like mimes. Perhaps it was because this was in San Francisco, the politically correct, eternally offended center of the prissyverse, or it was just God's way of ratcheting up the humor of the whole situation a couple notches for my sake. As Voltaire once famously said, "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh."

"'Visually impaired' doesn't necessarily mean they can't see at all. Perhaps they can only see certain distances, or only close up," he snipped, his face getting all blotchy.

Unable to restrain myself, I said, "But putting them up front isn't going to help for those kinds of situations, either. That stage is still a good 50 feet away!"

At which point he twisted away huffily. I turned the other direction to see if I could evoke any empathy or support and the guy over there was studiously ignoring the whole thing. As could be guessed, I was the only guy in my row who laughed during the talk.

And not one person sat in the front row.

My guess is they couldn't find the seats. After all, how useful to the visually impaired are lettered signs placed at least half an acre from the entry doors?

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