Mostly Useless

Jonathan Partington (

(An excerpt from the fifth book in the Douglas Adams trilogy, following on from 'The Hitch-hacker's guide to the CS', 'The Vendepac at the End of the University', 'Lift, the User Area, and Everything' and 'So long and thanks for all the coffee.')

The story so far, as far as anyone can understand it: It is twenty years after the original events of the Hitch-hacker's guide to the CS. Arthur Dent has been led to believe that the Computing Service was demolished by the Vogons to make way for a UNIX system. (His friend Ford Prefect spent some time as a user, and managed to revise the Guide's original entry on the CS from 'Useless' to 'Mostly Useless'.)

Now, as a result of the admission of his daughter as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Arthur Dent is forced to come to terms with UNICS, the replacement University Computing Service. Hartlibartfast, the Director, has long since retired, and the UNICS is now run by Zaphod Beeblebrox, though he maintains energetically that his real name is Bob Dowling.

Meanwhile Arthur is examining a state-of-the-art UNICS machine, with the aid of Marvin, who is, er, depressed. At this moment Zaphod arrives, having been to the Vendepacs to fetch a pan-galactic gargle-blaster.

"Hey! It's the ape-man and the robot! Long time, no see, guys! How're you keeping?"

"Don't ask," confided Marvin. "Much as usual, only a little bit worse. No, I tell a lie. Much much worse."

"Nice place you've got here, Zaphod. Whatever happened to all the users, though? You know, all those peculiar people who drank coffee all the time. Did they just die out?"

"Users? Where have you been, monkey-man? You think it's cool for a Computing Service to have users? Hey, even Hartlibartfast knew that things ran much better if you got rid of the users. You think I don't have better things to do than spend all my time saying 'Noted', 'We regret that this is not possible', and 'I shall cause this to be discussed'? That was the point of UNICS."

"Can't stand UNICS," pointed out Marvin. "Can't stand anything else, for that matter."

"Hey!" said Zaphod. "You're carrying a new edition of the Hitch-Hacker's guide to the CS. What's it like?"

"It seems to have changed a bit, certainly," said Arthur. "The friendly label saying 'Don't Panic' has gone, and all it has on it now is a sticker saying 'Fully UNICS-compatible. Abandon hope, all ye who enter data here.'. Let's see what it has to say about the Earth. I'm still not sure whether it was really demolished after all."

The guide gave a whirring and a buzzing sound, and up came the message 'No manual entry for Earth'.

"I think I preferred the old edition," said Arthur. "Call me old-fashioned if you wish, but I prefer user-friendly machines."

"You wouldn't if you were a machine," pointed out Marvin. "Can you imagine how tedious it is trying to be user-friendly to users you can't stand? I prefer to choose my own friends, not that I have any of course."

"Oh yes, the users," said Arthur. "What did you do with them all, Zaphod? They didn't just die out, did they?"

Zaphod averted his eyes uncomfortably. Then he did the same with his other eyes. "Well, you know, Arthur. They, er, got phased out as part of project Granta. It's called distributed computing. We put them all in a big Ark and shipped them off to Churchill College. We told them, er, that the computers would be following."

"Oh, and did they?" asked Arthur cynically.

"Well not exactly," said Zaphod. "That comes in Phase 2, in 10 years time. It's on the wishlist though..."

So how has Zaphod Beeblebrox spent the missing Granta millions? Can Churchill College cope with an influx of spotty users in anoraks, or will they not notice any difference? Would Marvin be happier if he were converted to UNICS? Why is "Westwood" a popular name amongst Vogons? Would Arthur's daughter be better advised to study at Oxford? Why does Ford Prefect spend all his days drunk on the floor of the User Services office? Will the author ever explain the plot, if indeed there ever was one?

To find out, look out for the next instalment in the Hitch-hacker's guide to the CS!!

UNICS is a trade-mark of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

567) Lift, the User Area, and Everything ... continued 3.6.89

The story so far ... Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect have escaped from certain death only to find themselves in the Golgafrincham B-ark, a spaceship staffed entirely by security guards, programming advisers, Vendepac repairmen and computing service staff. By sending this ark into space the Golgafrinchams managed to rid themselves of an entire unwanted third of their population and lived happily for many years until they were all wiped out by a nasty disease contracted from a faulty drinks machine. The ship crash lands on a small blue-green planet.

After a year on the planet, Ford and Arthur return from their explorations to see what progress the Golgafrinchams are making.

Ford: The experiment's a failure, Arthur. See how all the primitive users are dying out? They've been out-evolved by a bunch of systems programmers.

(The systems programmers are gathered round a rock, on which are prominently written the words COMPUTING SERVICE PLANNING MEETING, NUMBER 47,036.)

Chairman: Right, well our new management structure seems to be working very well so far. Since we all became managers, we have managed to produce more contradictory planning documents than ever before. Our one remaining programmer is on an extended holiday, so the software is stable at present.

Arthur (to the assembled Golgafrinchams): Look at you. You've been here a year now, and you haven't even got round to inventing coffee.

B, a systems programmer: O.K. Mr Smartass, just look at this wishlist. You tell us which of these 248 possible options it should have.

Arthur: Oh stick it up your nose.

B: Noted. I shall cause this to be discussed. (Writes) INFO.COFFEE.WISH.LIST number 249. COFFEE OPT ROUTE=NOSE. Could this be implemented under the existing protocols? If so, should this be a default option, or user-specifiable? Should RACF controls allow coffee to be routed to the noses of other users?

Ford: What's the point of talking to them, Arthur? In 7 million years the planet will be demolished to make way for Project Mega-Granta anyway. The Vogons will be running fibre-optic cables right through here.

D, the Captain: In that case, I've just got time for another bath. Pass the soap.

(Arthur wanders over to talk to the primitive users)

Arthur: No, how many times do I have to tell you? Column 6 is reserved for continuations. Bloody weasels, all they can do is make the computer print "Hello".

Ford: But look, Arthur. This one has numbered his statement "42" -- it must be something to do with the Ultimate Program Job.

Arthur: Hmm. " 42 GOTO 42". You know, I've always thought that life was little more than an infinite loop in the vortex of space-time.

Has the Experiment gone badly wrong? Was the Ultimate Program really written in FORTRAN, or is this just the only language that is understood locally? Is Marvin STILL trying to make a phone call? Is Zaphod Beeblebrox ever going to manage to buy one cup of coffee from each Vendepac and drink them simultaneously? Tune in next week...

The Coffee Machine at the End of the User Area

(From "The Coffee Machine at the End of the User Area" - a forgotten draft by Douglas Adams - 2.1.88)

The story so far... Zaphod Beeblebrox has been quietly relaxing over a cup of tea while debugging his latest "Trojan megadonkey" program, when in burst two Galactic Securicops. These accidentally cause a nearby coffee machine to explode, transporting our heroes through a 'feature of space-time' to the End of the User Area itself. Our heroes awake to find themselves in a very bleak environment.

"Like, this is really weird, man," said Zaphod. "It's a User Area with no people in at all."

"Yeah. I've got a feeling about this place," said Ford Prefect. He pushed the buttons for SECURICUP in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the User Area.

"SECURICUP," said the Guide. "A race of supremely nasty creatures with an even worse reputation than the Vogons. Ten million years of mis-evolution has resulted in a race known throughout the civilised world for its general rudeness and stupidity. Curiously there is one race that reveres the Securicups -- the sentient jellies of Userv III. These strange beings believe that Securicups are the incarnation of one they call 'The Holy Gorilla'. The best time to meet a Securicup is when you are just leaving anyway. The worst time is at a time in its life-cycle known as the Unattended Running, when it has delusions of its own power and greatness. It will demand what it regards as 'The One True Key', and will eat anyone it finds who does not possess this."

"Who's that blue-suited character over there?" asked Arthur.

"Oh shut up, monkey-man," said Zaphod. "Hey, Ford, I've just sussed it. This uncanny desolation is what they call Unattended Running. All users to be shot on sight. It's the sort of thing parents frighten their children with so that they go home and see them at Christmas."

"What Are You Doing In My User Area Stand Up Straight When I'm Talking To You I Saw You Hide That Cup You Long Haired Layabout I Shall Have To Report You What's Your Userid Where's Your Key Get Out," said the blue monster, lumbering up to our heroes.

At that moment a glum-looking metallic being detached itself from a pile of debris behind the coffee machine and wandered sulkily towards them.

"Hey, Marvin, talk to this creature, will you?" said Zaphod.

"I've just discovered a totally new Abend Code," said Marvin gloomily. "It's a bug in tsuna that nobody's been able to produce before. Even the CS isn't interested so I knew you wouldn't be. And now he tells me to talk to this creature. Me, with a project the size of the Chemistry Department..."

"Come on, Arthur!" said Ford Prefect. "The lift to the User Area isn't going to come today. We'll take the stairs." "Probably one of the people in Applied Biology training their monkeys to use the lift," puffed Arthur Dent as the two of them ran up the stairs. "Don't knock it, Arthur," said Ford. "Remember that's how you Earthlings started, pushing branches until you came down from the trees." Arthur was still recovering from surprise at finding that the Earth had not, after all, been demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, so that, by the time he had thought of a suitable retort, the two of them had reached the User Area.

They found Zaphod Beeblebrox sitting at two of the BBC Master terminals. "Hi, Ford! Oh hello, monkey-man," he said, swivelling his left head round from its terminal. "I was just getting ready to submit a job to find out the Ultimate Question. Hey, guys, we could be in the money on this one!" His right head turned away from the other terminal, where it was testing out a new Trojan Horse program, said "Hi" briefly, and went back to work.

The robot trudged up to them. "Oh hello, Marvin!" said Ford. "Nice to see you!"

"I suppose you want me to reply with some pathetic sociable remark," grumbled Marvin. "How about 'it looks like rain again'? Will that satisfy your desire for conversation?"

"Er..." said Arthur.

"'Looks like rain' indeed. If you had a brain as large as mine you would have calculated that it was going to rain in 23 minutes precisely. Shall I go out now and prepare to start rusting?"

"No, look, Marvin. I want to log on." said Ford. "Can you remember my password?"

"Here we go again," moaned the robot. "Am I likely to forget such a depressingly unoriginal password? While I've been talking to you I've had time to crack the entire password algorithm. Who do you want me to log you on as?"

"Oh, fordp will do," replied Ford. "Then go and get me a large pan-galactic gargle-blaster from the drinks machine."

"Hey, Marvin!" said Zaphod. "Get a couple for me too."

"I'll have Cola," said Arthur. "It says 'Pan-galactic gargle-blasters unavailable. Engineer notified.'"

"Yeah, who cares what you're having, Earthman?" sneered Zaphod. "Wowie! This SYMA program sure is weird. It's just told me I haven't enough credit to submit my Ultimate Question Job. Me, the most credit-worthy guy in the Universe! I ask you..."

"Let me try, Zaphod," said Ford. "I've probably got some credit left. Where's your file?"

"In ~zaphodb/FORTY.TWO, Ford. Hey, here's the robot back with the drinks." As Marvin hobbled up, bearing 3 glasses of a liquid almost but not entirely unlike cola, Arthur looked up 'coffee machine' in his Hitch Hikers' Guide to the User Area.

"coffee machine. A branch of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation (formerly IBM) (q.v). Manufacturers of narcotic drinks. It is said that one cup of coffee contains enough energy to power a computer programmer for 6 hours. It also contains a drug known as tsunain, which causes compulsive worship of something known as 'the blessed machine'. So effective has coffee machine drink been in producing a religious devotion to Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Mainframes that Oolon Colluphid, in his latest book 'Why doesn't God go and boil his head then?' has argued that, if God existed, he would have invented a tea machine. Machine coffee is not to be confused with Real Coffee (q.v.), a drink made on primitive planets using beans."

"Hey, Marvin," said Zaphod. "Look at this SYMA output. Doesn't it blow your mind? What does it mean?" Marvin groaned in a resigned way and stared at the table of random numbers on Zaphod Beeblebrox's screen. "Can't stand SYMA output," he said finally. "Correlation coefficient with reality is minus 0.3. Leave it alone: it might go away."

Zaphod raised his cup to his lips, but at that moment the doors flew open and two uniformed men with guns trained their weapons on the party. "O.K. Beeblebrox. We got you covered," drawled one of them. "We can see you got a drink at that terminal. Put the cup down and come quietly or we gonna shoot you." "Holy Zarquon's Trojan Fish!" swore Zaphod. "It's the Securicup squad. They're onto us. What are we going to do, Ford?"

(To be continued...?)

I LOVE SECURICUP tee-shirts are now available from Securicor Enterprises, Ursa Major, for the price of a cup of coffee.