A Confusing Place - The Explanation

by Jeremy Lee [Orinoco]

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Subject: uh... It was me : Confessions and Explanations :
Posted by Jeremy Lee

This is probably the best chance I'll have to set the record straight concerning the strange and disturbing events of the last year and a half. Let me tell you a tale...

I wrote it. At least, I believe I did. I distinctly remember staring out the window wondering how people were going to take the Wombat, and carefully rearranging the words of many sentences until quite late. I may have imagined it. It's possible. But I don't think so. The muse was with me that night. I've not written that well since.

I'm not a professional writer. At best, I'm a semi-talented amateur. I did actually get paid for writing something once, but only by accident.

Australia: The Confusing Country (henceforth "A:TCC") was written specifically for h2g2.com. That is where the confusion begins, I think.

The year was 1999, a time of progress and industry! h2g2 had just opened, to great fanfare and enthusiasm. I have always been a bit of a hitch-hikers fan (this, as my friends will attest, is a small understatement. And so was that.) and I managed to be one of the first three thousand people to sign up.

I then proceeded to chew at the rubber of my cursor, wondering what to write. I thought I might begin by fix some of the more glaring omissions in the guide; For example, the entire country of Australia (in which I live) seemed to be absent. Rather a big gap, I thought. I resolved to do something about it.

The 'Original' draft (before editing, including spelling mistakes) can be found here ( http://www.h2g2.com/A12295 ), and the datestamp indicates I first submitted it to h2g2 on the 29th of April, 1999. I'd been fiddling with it for a few days by then, I recall, having written nearly all of it in an inspired state in one night. I wrote two other articles at about the same time ("The Solar System: Parade of Oddities" and "The Stick: Second Most Useful Thing Ever", which is referenced by the Oz entry.) I have yet to write the refered-to "Deserts: How to Die in them" (which will contain advice such as "Leave all your water at home, run out of petrol on the Nullarbor Plain, and then wander away from the car looking for help while occasionally putting your hand down mysterious holes.") and the entry on Australia's astonishing variety of poisonous and venomous creatures. (there is a difference: Poison is by accident. Venom is on purpose.) I realise that it's been over a year since - making me quite tardy - but I've always had the highest regard for Douglas Adams, and seem to have emulated his writing style in nearly every respect. :-)

A word on that: Yes, I write like Douglas Adams. I'm sorry. Really, terribly sorry. It's not a put-on. Honest! I suppose I was severely traumatized by his books as a child, and have never fully recovered. Douglas; there are several of my old English teachers who would probably like to have a stern word with you, in retribution for all those long sentences I put them through.

Not only did I rip off poor DNA's writing style, some of his idioms, and the occasional specific topic (stonefish, for instance) but I also incorporated ideas and elements from Terry Pratchett's "The Last Continent". (The "Poisonous and Venomous Arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia" is pretty much straight out of TLC.) There was also specific influence from another of Douglas' pieces, "Riding the Rays" (this used to be available on www.tdv.com, but has since disappeared) of which my favorite sentence is "No wonder the Australians have a particular kind of smile that they reserve exclusively for use on the British."

I have already apologised to Mr Pratchett for A:TCC, in person, at WorldCon last year. (Though I doubt he remembers) Now I get to apologise to Mr Adams as well.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. um... Sorry.

I feel better now.

Of course, a lot of it was my own stuff, formed simply from living here and keeping my eyes open and my brain running. But without the literary background mentioned above it would have been very different, probably less coherent, and definitely not as infamous.

There were three reasons for this plagarism: First and foremost, most of what they wrote was dead-on. TLC is an absolutely brilliant and insightful portrayal of the Australian culture, and Douglas has also been razor-sharp with his dissections of the Aussie psyche. Second, I knew that the average reader of h2g2 would probably have this literature sitting in their collective unconcious, and thus I was drawing on already-established lines of thought and reasoning. This served to made the piece seem very 'familiar'. (Which almost certainly contributed to the later events)

Third and last, I never intended A:TCC as an independant example of my work, but merely a summary of important ideas that should keep a visitor to Australia alive and well. The 'feel' of the entry is at least as important as the factual content, in that regard, since humans are terrible at remembering details, but good at generalities. If someone else had 'said it' better than I could, then I shamelessly stole. Several Tourists die every year out here, from simple mistakes that us Aussies learned long ago. ("Don't swim in crocodile-infested rivers", is a good one, as is "In the outback, water is life") I might say it in a funny way, but I'm dead serious about all of it.

Let me explain:

I've seen pictures of the Geneva countryside, a green patchwork quilt of farms and villages. I've flown over the US, and watched a completely inhabited countryside roll beneath, every square metre of land crammed with malls and gas stations and screaming Americans.

Australia isn't like that.

It's mostly empty, except for the spinifex and spiders. Americans and Europeans seem to have trouble with that concept. It just doesn't fit their worldview and gets them in trouble. For example: If you drive up through Central Queensland (say, from Brisbane to Mt Isa) you have to plan ahead for petrol. There are stretches where you'll be down to a quarter of a tank, even if you refill at every stop. If you miss the wrong one, you can be stranded literally a hundred kilometres from the nearest human being. Stupid tourists often get out and start walking, confident that the next town or some picturesque farmhouse will be just over the hill... and a week later their empty car will be found, and that is all.

Stay with the car until help arrives. If you have to, you can drink the radiator water. I am *not* kidding.

The most scary thing about Australia: The Confusing Country is that it's all true. Even the bit about the wombats. (well... Kangaroos might actually cause more deaths in some years... the statistics are hard to come by.) It's 'True' in the sense that, if you listen to the advice, Bad Things are much less likely to happen to you. It is a VERY silly idea to stick your hand down a hole in Australia, and the Wombat was as memorable a way as I could say it. You're actually much more likely to be bitten by a snake or redback spider, but that doesn't quite have the same impact in print. (Though both are equally fatal in the flesh, so to speak) So I went with the wombat. Hand-crushing deaths are actually quite rare. But they have happened. Motor-vehicle wombat/kangaroo deaths are depressingly common, however.

I feel completely justified in saying "it's all true" because I've had quite a few emails - from Australians to US exchange students (hi Annie!) to Englishmen who came on holliday - who tracked the article back to me saying (and I quote) "It's all true! Every last word!".

Anyway. Back to the chronology.

I wrote it. It sat there. A few listless people read it.

In late '99, I got invited to be a Sub-editor on h2g2 on the strength of the writing, which made me incredibly happy. For confirmation of that part, you can ask Anna McGovern at h2g2. If she asks if you know when I'll be finished editing those entries, uh, pretend you don't know me.

Time Passed. The millennium ended. (I count from zero.) The world didn't.

Then it happened: Someone turned "Australia: The Confusing Country" into an email chain letter. Most of what I know about this was passed on by my faithful friends on the front line.

I imagine it all started when someone pasted the h2g2 entry into an email message and sent it to some friends saying something like "Here's a funny article on Australia that I found in the Hitch-Hikers' Guide!". Given how population dynamics favours multiple simultaneous outbreaks to create a true epidemic, probably several people did that.

And everyone knows who wrote the Hitch-hikers guide, don't they?

* It went viral sometime about the end of January, 1999. First known contact was when my beloved Alys had it forwarded to her at work on Fri, 21 Jan 2000 09:58:51 +1000. At this point, it already had the Douglas Adams attribution, which never left.

* It was recieved by another good friend, Annette Fraser, on Tue, 01 Feb 2000 19:26:02 +1000.

* Buckaroo (Hamish MacGregor) got it Thu, 10 Feb 2000 15:48:42 +1000, also from a co-worker.

* Cameron Brown got it. Rafe Hatfield got it. Steve Clark got it. I don't have the emails, so I can't give an exact time, but it was around then.

* Lauchlan Carl got it Tue, 22 Feb 2000 11:56:57 +1000 after having it relayed by Jackie Nash who didn't know where it was from.

That constituted well over half my good friends with email access. Most didn't just get it once. We're talking maybe 60-70% penetration among my peers, which if it scales to the rest of the Aussie email audience, (estimated at over 4 million) is quite scary. It can now be found popping up on web sites, which is phase two of this kind of propagation. All attributed to Douglas Adams. The only exceptions were those who didn't attribute it at all.

Of significant note is that the period when it first appeared corresponds closely with the 26th of January, which is Australia Day, our biggest national holiday. This was probably the main trigger. That suggests it might reappear next year, perhaps in greater numbers. I shall be hiding under my bed.

I doubt it would have gone quite so far so fast without Douglas' name on it. Apart from that initial mutation, the virus has remained remarkably stable and has not changed form since, to my knowledge. Some even retain the footnotes. The actual text on h2g2 has been revised twice since the first edit, so there are potentially four slight variants that could be circulating. I can recognize all of them, but I've only seen the 'original edited' version.

It still seems to be propagating, though much slower. Friends have stopped getting it. (Or, at least, have stopped telling me about it.) Various forum messages indicate it has propagated nicely overseas, but it probably won't have the same kind of penetration it did here.

This has happened to me before, believe it or not. I once wrote a Linux/Microsoft rant called "The Two Towers" (obvious Tolkien references, for similar cultural-background reasons.) which CmdrTaco liked enough to turn into a www.slashdot.org feature, which the editor of a 'small Indian computer magazine' (it turned out to be ComputerWorld India) read, and emailed me to ask if he could reprint it. I said yes, and three months later a FedEx package arrived which contained a cloth-wrapped bundle which contained a copy of the Magazine in which my article appeared, shipped all the way from India via the USA. It had illustrations. I felt proud.

There's a lesson in this for all of us, but I'm buggered if I can work out what it is.

If anyone wants to know why and how I write like I do, (the perennial "Where do your ideas come from") I can think of no better demonstration than that Indian package:

I was amazed, totally astonished by it! It was a window into a world of absurdity that I've not seen since. You see, that package had originally been wrapped in this thin, poor, floral-patterned indian cloth. So carefully, as if to waste as little material as possible. It smelled vaugely of incense. An address had been written in ball-point pen on a small card, which was badly glued to the cloth. I imagined some underpaid Indian mailroom worker, making hundreds of these individual parcels and then sorting the overseas-bound copies into a pile for bulk delivery via surface ship to ComputerWorld USA, for redistribution through more reliable mail channels.

There, I think it was roughly dropped into an overnight FedEx package, (tearing the cloth) it's destination address re-typed for the computer-printed Bill of Materials which was affixed to the plastic-coated bubblewrap package by peel-off sticky backing, at a careless cost which would probably make that indian mail-room worker weep.

Hand-wrapped cloth inside a hi-tech bubblebag. It's those kinds of incongruities which seem to leap out at me from a side-alley of life, and smash me over the head with some new insight into this insane universe. And I just have to tell someone. Anyone. It doesn't matter who. Just gotta write it down.

There was also a cheque inside for US$100, for allowing them to reprint my article. That's probably a lot of money in India. I could never bring myself to cash it.

There. My tale is done. You know the story. Time to tuck and tidy a few last loose ends:

As far as copyright goes, I believe I have joint rights with h2g2 under their contributor policy. I am happy for the original article to travel as far and wide as it can (and how could I stop it if I wanted to?) so long as a link is made back to the edited entry on h2g2, which is here. ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/h2g2/guide/A53650 ) I actually found this forum question only because someone just emailed me, referring to it, while asking me for permission to use A:TCC on a site. I think the idea of copyright is funny. Enough said.

If you want to know more about me, then go here: though I can sum me up with six words right now: I'm a nerd. A quantum geek.

"Sunscreen" was written by Mary Schmich for her column in the Chicago Tribune where she describes a commencement speech she would *like* to give. Just FYI. (I follow these things)

If you liked A:TCC, then you might also like parts (eg. Saturn) of the original draft of The Solar System ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/h2g2/guide/A29990 ) which I wrote before reading the submission guidelines, (*always* read the submission guidelines!) and fumbled my conceit, requiring it to be hacked up rather thoroughly for the 'Official' entry. Actually, before that, read The Stick ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/h2g2/guide/A13483 ) which is a thickly veiled rant against attempts to combine personal organisers with mobile phones. (How do you write things down whilst talking, hmmm?) There's some other stuff on my site, but I didn't really put much effort into the literature there, just the facts and ideas, which I also didn't put much effort into, come to think of it. I'm very proud of the layout, though.

For the record, I'm not personally concerned with the incorrect attribution. In a funny way, Douglas *is* ultimately responsible. The only thing I'd like to see is h2g2.com get proper credit for being somewhere that weird stuff like this can happen.

And finally, Douglas: If you're ever in Brisbane again, I'll buy you a Fourex (or whatever you're drinking) at the Royal Exchange, and say Sorry, again, in person. You should also know that reading your comments, vis: "It's very good, I enjoyed it ... and I really wished I had written it." has absolutely made my day. Thank you!

Jeremy Lee | Orinoco