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Oddly, this song has not been far from my thoughts ever since we brought the Odyssey home.  Go figure.

Roger Kimball notes that the higher education tide is starting to turn:

The current, and the money, is beginning to flow the other way. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has read the tea leaves,  seen the pattern in the carpet, and felt the shifting winds of change.  Here’s the relevant headline form The Chronicle of So-Called Higher Education:

 Thiel Fellowship Pays 24 Talented Students $100,000 Not to Attend College

The most important data point is not the 100,000 smackeroos but the word “talented.”

Mr. Thiel is not interested in providing furloughs for the mediocre, the uninspired, the weary, or the time-servers.  He wants to nab tomorrow’s Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates  of 2020, the up-and-coming Peter Thiel who requires not “diversity training” and lessons in how Shakespeare was a colonialist but an atmosphere that encourages real engagement with real-life problems. “The fellowship seeks to help winners develop their ideas more quickly than they would at a traditional university,” the Chronicle reports, adding that “Its broader aim goes beyond helping the 24 winners, by raising big questions about the state of higher education.”

Good. Goooooood.  Raise those questions.

At this point, I am still assuming that, like their aged parents before them, the gels will all go to college and grad school, that they will pick up a liberal arts degree as undergrads – which I believe to be a good in itself so long as it is a quality degree- and then prepare for a profession of some sort.  But of course, these days demand for slots is too fierce and tuition is just too damned high.  Movements like this one will, I hope, apply some corrective market pressures to the situation by, in effect, giving higher ed some serious competition.

It’s another five years before the eldest gel is off.  Hopefully, higher ed will have gone through some meaningful reform by then.

Indeed.  Somebody pour me a pan-galactic gargle blaster.

My former co-Llama Steve-O reminds me that today is Towel Day, the annual celebration of the life and twisted imagination of author Douglas Adams.  First, here’s the quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that got the whole thing started:

A towel, [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 vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft 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 avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); 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.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

I first read THHGTTG when I was in high school.  The paroxysms of gut-shaking, tear-streaking, helpless laughter to which it reduced me firmly cemented my reputation with my classmates as a first-class weirdo. (The same thing happened when I read the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings.  I had a serious reputation as a weirdo.)  And while I have read it far too often now to reach the same heights of mirth, it still makes me smile.

Since it is Towel Day, I thought I would offer a few gratuitous observations about Adams and his works:

First, Adams’ work is funny not just because of the ideas he wrote about, but because of the way in which he wrote about them.  If I may be allowed to pull a favorite hobby-horse out of the barn here, I will point out that this makes his writing very, very difficult to successfully translate to another medium.  When the latter source of humor is eliminated, the adapter has no choice but to either over-emphasize the former source or else to import in something else entirely, thereby upsetting the balance of the original.  This, I believe, is what happened with the 2005 movie version of the Guide, which I refuse to see on principle but have read enough about to be pretty confident in my suspicions.  The early 80’s Beeb mini-series was pretty awful, too.  However, there is a peculiarly endearing quality to Beeb sci-fi awfulness, so I actually enjoyed that effort.

Second, although I am obviously a Guide fan, I’m also a realist:  The series never should have extended beyond the third book.  So Long And Thanks For All The Fish was a real stinker, and Mostly Harmless wasn’t much better.  I don’t really blame Adams for this.  From what I understand, his publishers locked him in a room and threatened to sic a rabid badger on him if he didn’t crank them out, but the forced, leaden quality of these books is perfectly obvious, and is a real let-down from the fresh, manic inspiration of the original trilogy.

This, by the way, is a pattern that I have seen elsewhere in Adams’ work, particularly in the Dirk Gently novels.  Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is, in my opinion, the best book he ever wrote.  Its sequel, The Long, Dark, Tea-Time of the Soul, is distinctly less inspired.  Probably just as well that there were no more Dirk novels.  I believe this is because Adams was a kind of fly-and-die Ideas guy.  His brilliance lay in his bursts of creative imagination, but I think he had too snipe-like an attention span to really follow up on them effectively.

The other thing about Adams that I find infuriating, and which is best expressed in his essays in The Salmon of Doubt, is the fact that although he was a celebrated atheist, he nonetheless had a particular talent for spotting God’s thumbprints all over the Universe.  How he could see so many patterns while doggedly refusing to credit the idea of a directing Mind behind them is quite beyond me.

But don’t panic.  For all that, I still think Adams is one hoopy frood.


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May 2011