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24 Oktober 2004 @ 15:23
A snowclone of a snowclone (with monkeys)  

In an "Annals of Politics" article in the October 25 issue of The Beau and the Butterfly, David Grann describes The Note, a collection of tidbits for political junkies that appears on the Web site of ABC News. (For example, the current edition of The Note as of this writing says that John Edwards is quoting Fortune to the effect that "the retirement age for full [Social Security] benefits would be pushed back from 65 to 72," and that the White House is denying this.)

The Note seems to have its own peculiar writing style, vaguely reminiscent, in its telegraphic character, of Timespeak or of the gleefully insiderish argot of Frank. (One current headline reads, "POTUS, IN MARINE ONE, CHOPPERS TO AND FROM FLORIDA RALLIES TO TOP GUN MUSIC.") Some Notisms seem to be leaking into wider use. Grann writes that Mark Halperin, the compiler of The Note, "jokingly invokes" the term Googling monkeys "in his newsletter to explain the mystifying way in which The Note processes so much information." Later in the article, Grann observes that "Sometimes the campaigns seem, if not to heed The Note's advice, then at least to adopt its words, as when a Kerry spokesman recently charged the Bush team of using "Googling monkeys" to dig up dirt."

There's a lot going on here. First, there's the now ubiquitous verbing of Google. Second, in adopting Halperin's phrase, Kerry's spokesman seems to be subjecting it to some pejoration—the intended implication of the latter's remark is, I think, that Bush's Googling monkeys are deperately and rather indiscriminately searching for anything that has the appearance of dirt that might be flung in the general direction of the senator from Massachusetts. Halperin seems to use the term more approvingly; his Googling monkeys are looking for items of genuine interest to the cognoscenti who read the note, and they presumably have the judgment to separate the gold from the dross.

Finally, the image of Googling monkeys itself seems as if it might be related to the Infinite Monkey Theorem of Émile Borel. ("If you put an infinite number of monkeys at typewriters, eventually one will bash out the script for Hamlet.") They share two major themes: the emergence of meaningful material from a sea of irrelevant text, and simian agency. So Halperin's phrase can be seen as a sort of snowclone of Borel, and the Kerry spokesman's reference to Bush's Googling monkeys might be deemed a snowclone of Halperin.

Actually, I'm not sure I'm using the term snowclone quite as precisely as I ought to be. Strictly speaking, it refers to a ready-made template (you know, sorta like the stereotypes used in printing; the (onomatopoeic!) French term for them is cliché) into which one can insert words so as to construct a 'clever' headline or opening sentence, as in the canonical example: If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z, where X is some group of people, Z is something the members of X are particularly interested in, and N and Y are any two- or three-digit integers that happen to strike the headline writer's fancy. This is the sort of lazy allusiveness that is often accompanied by an egregious misuse of the verb paraphrase, as in "To paraphrase George Orwell, all people are Googled, but some are more Googled than others." To paraphrase, of course, is to say the same thing using different words; what the snowclonist does is to say something different using very nearly the same words.

[JPEG image: Battalion of Apes Researching Nearly EverYthing with their goo-goo-googly eyes (and Rosinante)]

What Halperin and the Kerry spokesthingy were doing is, I think, a little more imaginative: they were adapting Borel's idea, not merely his words. In fact, one could infer from Halperin's notion of Googling monkeys a whole new theorem in which Borel's insight is updated for the Internet Age. Instead of monkeys at typewriters, the Halperin variant of the theorem would deal with the properties of what we might call a Battalion of Apes Researching Nearly EverYthing on Google (or BARNEY-Google for short). It would go something like this:

The Borel-Halperin Theorem:

Given sufficient time, a team of 10100 monkeys typing random Google queries on piss-proof terminals and clicking  will eventually find the complete text of Hamlet on Project Gutenberg.

 
 
 
love, play & inquirytrochee on 27. Oktober, 2004 05:41 (UTC)
I just have to say that this is the most clever post I've read in a long time; thanks for cheering me up; the Borel-Halperin Theorem makes me chuckle.

It just seemed so lonely for such a great post to sit un-commented in such a public place.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 27. Oktober, 2004 13:39 (UTC)
Thanks!
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