Thursday, July 21, 2005

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously ... on the Internet  

Recently, Henry Crutcher and I discussed Chomsky's famous phrase "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", intended to be an example of a sentence which was grammatical but meaningless.

Henry was curious about whether a stronger example of a meaningless phrase could be found, as he could see ways of interpreting it analogically and wanted something stronger. However, he backed off when he thought about colorless green - a seeming contraditction in terms.

Not necessarily. I pointed out if you tweaked the words, you might be able to come up with usages. For example, in quantum mechanics, the Phi meson is a strange particle (a particle made from strange quarks) which has zero strangeness because it incorporates both a strange quark and antiquark. Or, more pointedly, ALL mesons are "colorless" particles because they contain quarks and antiquarks, each with its "color" and "anticolor". So our sample Phi meson might reasonably be described as a colorless green particle because it is composed of green and antigreen quarks.

But this analogy seemed like it didn't help because particles don't really sleep ... unless you consider the furious sleep of virtual particles in the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Modern theories of physics suggest fantastic numbers of particles that we can't see are created all the time and just as quickly destroyed ... which, curiously enough, funny quirks in the movement of particles that we CAN see. These "virtual particles" don't really exist except through their influences on other particles, almost like how ideas don't really exist except through their influences on the people that hold them. So in this sense an infinite number of colorless green ideas sleep furiously throughout the universe around us. But I digress, because neither of us were buying that interpretation.

Green ideas DID make sense, however, in the "novice" or "untried" sense of green. In that sense an idea can be green - and it can also be bloodless or colorless if it fails to excite anyone. Once an idea has failed to excite anyone, of course, it falls asleep. Henry suggested that sleeping furiously could mean an idea that had many sleeping copies, at which point it occurred to me: an idea that's sleeping furiously is just a failed marketing campaign: millions of copies exist but fail to influence anyone, like New Coke or Windows DNA. In fact, in technology space it seems like every week someone pops forth with a new, green idea, standard or technology that's hot only to their marketing department but is colorless and bloodless to everyone else. The idea is marketed furiously, then peters out and dies as its marketing money withdraws, leaving piles of detritus heaped across the landscape like glacial moraines, still green and untested, but too colorless for anyone to care to wake them from their prehistoric slumber.

So now we know where colorless green ideas sleep furiously: on the internet.

And then Henry and I were very happy, having found an interpretation of an uninterpretable sentence that at last made sense. "Dot NET is a colorless green idea sleeping furiously!" - or at least the marketing initiative is, though .NET is live and well in development land. But again I digress, because our jubilation over interpreting the uninterpretable didn't last. We thought we were being clever ... unfortunately, someone else thought of it first.

Oh well. It wasn't a very good analogy, right bloodless in fact. And I'm sure everyone else who hears the phrase thinks of it too, at least the first time they tackle it like a novice. Perhaps it's best to let this analogy rest, along with all the other thousands of colorless green ideas that sleep furiously beside it.

-the Centaur


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